Republican Family Feud in Alaska

Posted March 29, 2004 at 6:38pm

Despite news that a member of her father’s administration has resigned to consider challenging her in the Republican primary, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is not fazed.

“We’ve known all along that there might always be a primary challenger and our campaign plan has always accounted for that fact so … we are not surprised” by the development, Elliott Bundy, Murkowski campaign spokesman, said of reports that Alaska Administration Commissioner Mike Miller might enter the Republican primary.

If there is a disgruntled faction within the state GOP, “we haven’t seen or heard it,” Bundy said. The news about Miller “is galvanizing support for us,” he added.

Democrats had a different take. They note that Miller was appointed to his job by Murkowski’s father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), after the elder Murkowski passed over Miller and many other prominent Republicans to finish his Senate term in favor of his daughter.

“It’s clearly another sign of how vulnerable Lisa Murkowski is,” said Cara Morris, spokeswoman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “Not only do appointed Senators have a less successful rate of being elected, but now she has a primary challenger.”

Miller, a former Alaska Senate president, said he will not make an official decision until April 15 — tax day, a day he chose to highlight Murkowski’s past support for a state income tax.

“One of the things I’m very concerned about is the seat going Democratic, and quite frankly I’m just quite concerned,” Miller said.

All along it has seemed likely that if Murkowski were to receive a credible primary challenge, it would come from the right, and Miller confirmed that, saying that in a likely matchup with former Gov. Tony Knowles (D), Murkowski is not sufficiently conservative.

“Looking at where Lisa is and looking at where [Knowles] is, I don’t see a lot of difference between the two and I see conservatives staying home on Election Day and Tony winning the seat.”

Miller is voicing a frustration with Murkowski that Alaska pollster Ivan Moore, who has worked for Republicans and Democrats in the past, warned about in January.

“There is bubbling resentment on the right end of the political spectrum,” Moore said, referring to the nepotism factor as well as the perception that Murkowski is too moderate for the party faithful.

In one of his latest polls, Murkowski was only winning roughly 75 percent of conservatives while Knowles had locked down about 90 percent of liberals.

“She has to quell the rebellion within the Republican ranks,” Moore said, adding that it began with her appointment and dates back to her days in the state Legislature.

Republicans in Fairbanks were particularly perturbed that Frank Murkowski passed over a native son, former state Sen. Johne Binkley, to finish his Senate term in favor of daughter, Lisa, at the end of 2002, Moore said.

Miller lives in North Pole, about 15 miles from Fairbanks.

Anchorage-based GOP pollster David Dittman agrees there could be some lingering resentment in Fairbanks over Binkley — who decided back in September not to pursue the nomination — but said Lisa Murkowski, who grew up in Fairbanks, remains popular there.

Bundy said Murkowski’s weekend trip to Fairbanks to collect the National Rifle Association’s “surprise” and early endorsement showed that there is no rift within the party.

“If anything people are more unified behind us then they have ever been,” he said.

Another area with embittered Republicans is the Mat-Su Valley, where former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin lives, Moore said.

Palin too was in the mix to replace the elder Murkowski but was appointed to the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission by Gov. Murkowski instead — a job she quit within a year amid controversy.

Palin, who is bound by a gag order issued by another Frank Murkowski appointee, the attorney general, not to discuss why she left her post, would not rule out a Senate run but also said she would not enter the race if it served to sever the conservative vote.

“I wouldn’t sacrifice myself or my supporters in a spoiler role if that’s what it would look like,” she said.

“It would be a futile effort, in fact [it] would be idiotic, to split the vote,” she explained.

Palin said Miller’s flirting with a run was not only a surprise, but also evidence of a fissure within the party over the appointment process.

“Here he went form being an insider in the Murkowski cabinet to announcing his resignation and then ‘I’m running against your daughter,’ that’s a pretty big darn deal,” she said. “There are a few different ballgames [here], but both are being played on the Republican field.”

For his part Miller, whose resignation takes effect Thursday, said he harbors no ill will toward Frank Murkowski.

“I’m very appreciative of the governor for giving me the opportunity to serve in the government,” Miller said. “We’re leaving on very good terms; it’s time to move on to do other things … this is a one-time shot, this is what’s driving it for me.”

“I was on the short list the governor had when he went through this whole process so it’s not like it’s something I just now thought about,” he said of his desire to be a Senator. “As I’ve watched this race continue to progress … and all of a sudden it struck me that a lot of the core voters in the Republican Party either aren’t going to vote in that race or are going to vote for Tony because they’re unhappy with Lisa” and the fact that she was appointed.

“Her stance all along has been that her father’s appointment gets her to the end of her father’s term and from day one in office she’s been doing her damnedest … letting her record and her accomplishments speak for themselves, that should be enough to unify the party,” Bundy retorted.

“Sen. Murkowski is the most qualified candidate, so we’ll leave at it that,” he added.

Since Miller dipped his toe in the election waters last week, pols have wondered if a cascade of would-be challengers will fall into the race as a result, but Bundy said he doubts it.

“That was a concern of ours but we haven’t heard that at all,” Bundy said. “We haven’t heard that anyone else is jumping on this bandwagon; I think that’s only been talk and we haven’t heard anything other than talk.”

Palin said that, beside herself, there’s been a long-shot rumor that Lt. Gov. Loren Leman (R) might run, though she stressed that was highly unlikely.

Palin said she won’t make her final decision until the June 1 filing deadline.

Former state Sen. Jerry Ward (R) of Soldotna told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner that he might trade in his effort to return to the state Senate for a crack at the U.S. Senate.

Early on, Lisa Murkowski and Republican Party officials dissuaded Palin from running, arguing it would be too disruptive to the party, Palin charged.

Bundy denied that Murkowski or any state party official is trying to keep people out of the Aug. 24 primary.

“We are not taking any efforts to discourage anyone and we haven’t heard that there have been any steps official or unofficial to discourage anyone,” Bundy said.

While the Murkowski camp is prepared for a tough primary race, should there be one, Bundy said it would be a mistake for other big-name Republicans to enter the contest.

“Their getting in would only fracture the party,” he said. “Both times Tony Knowles [won governor’s races] it was against a Republican Party that wasn’t unified and I don’t think anyone wants to see a repeat performance,” he said.

Regardless of the merits of an insurgency campaign, anyone getting into the race at this point would face a huge financial disadvantage and not be able to rely on national GOP backing.

Murkowski raised more than $2 million in 2003, Bundy said. She also has the firm support of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.

“We will do what it takes to make sure she’s successful not only in the primary but in the general election as well,” NRSC spokesman Dan Allen said Monday.

Murkowski has two big endorsements on her side too. Besides the NRA, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has already run ads for her.

“They’ll have more money but Alaskans aren’t easily bought with a lot of slick media and the like. They’re bought by ideas,” Miller said. “If I get in, I will I go out and earn it. You can run an effective grassroots campaign on half a million dollars.”

Palin agreed that money would not be as hard to come by as some observes believe.

“I think individual Alaskans who are still looking for someone whom they can support aren’t tapped out,” Palin said. “I haven’t personally given to anyone. The millions of dollars we hear, the record-setting pace they are on, that doesn’t turn on Alaskans. There are only so many ads that we can put up with.”