How ‘Red’ Is Alaska?

Three Shades of Republicanism Exposed by Senate Primary

Posted June 8, 2004 at 6:27pm

With all state and federal offices held by the GOP, and President Bush expected to earn an easy victory there in the fall, there is no doubt that Alaska is a “red” state.

But with three Republicans vying for their party’s Senate nomination, the question becomes, what shade of red is Alaska?

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R), who, for the most part, has the backing of the party establishment, is banking on Alaska running pure red.

Her first intraparty challenger, one-time state Senate President Mike Miller, aims to prove that the Last Frontier is a conservative, crimson red.

The last Republican to enter the fray, former U.S. attorney Wev Shea, says he is running because he is unhappy with the state party’s leadership and is hoping to capture the disgruntled vote — the blood-boiling end of the red spectrum.

And of course in November there will be former Gov. Tony Knowles, the presumptive Democratic nominee, trying to prove that Alaska has some blue in it too.

Early on, it seemed Murkowski had things sewn up nicely. Her fellow federal officeholders, Sen. Ted Stevens and Rep. Don Young, backed her, as did the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Even the National Rifle Association, which had endorsed her Republican opponent in her last state House race, was on board.

None of this scared Miller out of the race, however, and he jumped into the mix in April, accusing Murkowski of not being a true conservative and questioning whether she could beat Knowles in November.

Almost immediately he won the backing of the Alaska Right to Life Committee and of former Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin, a leading conservative who has become an agitator against the state’s Republican establishment.

Miller then scored his biggest coup of the race to date when Republican Lt. Gov. Loren Leman snubbed his 2002 running mate and governor, Frank Murkowski, by shunning Murkowski’s daughter, Lisa Murkowski, in favor of Miller.

Leman said he doubted Lisa Murkowski could win because many Alaskans were still unhappy about how she got her job — she was appointed by her father in December 2002. Furthermore, he and Miller were friends during their state legislative days, and Leman said he felt more kinship ideologically with Miller than Murkowski.

That drew a sharp rebuke from Stevens, the dean of the Alaska Congressional delegation, who clearly wants Republicans to fall in line behind his choice, Murkowski.

“That will be remembered along the line, not just by us but by everybody,” Stevens warned Leman in the Anchorage Daily News. “It’s not the kind of thing that’s expected.”

Nonetheless, Miller, Palin, Leman and now Shea seem content to roil the red waters of Alaska.

Shea said the last straw for him was last month’s party convention in Soldotna when the Republican brass not only refused to speak out against their party chairman, who is accused of violating the state’s ethics law, but also reaffirmed their faith in him.

Gov. Murkowski praised him, while Stevens, Lisa Murkowski and Miller declined to criticize him.

“I was repulsed by the actions of the central committee, Lisa, Gov. Murkowski, Stevens and Mike Miller,” Shea said. “They just don’t seem to understand what integrity is.”

Shea, the U.S. attorney under the first President Bush, said he is running to return integrity to a state party that he thinks has adopted a win-at-any-cost attitude and thrown ethics out the window.

“I think they are all making a big mistake; I think there’s a lot more to come out,” Shea added.

Palin blew the whistle on GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich last year and accused him of improperly conducting party business on state time.

Palin and Ruedrich were both serving on the state oil and gas commission, high-paying jobs that they were appointed to by Frank Murkowski.

Both have subsequently resigned.

Ruedrich also admitted that he leaked a confidential commission document to one of the industry insiders he was supposed to be regulating. The state’s Republican attorney general — who is also a Frank Murkowski appointee — is investigating the allegations.

All of these factors are part of the Alaska Republican Party’s ongoing internal struggles, said Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska at Anchorage.

“The party is pretty well split here,” he said. “There’s the religious right and the people who call themselves moderate Republicans.”

Miller represents the religious right, Shea is slightly less conservative, and Lisa Murkowski is probably representative of the moderate wing of the party, Shepro noted.

Both Shea and Murkowski shy away from the moderate label, however, and Shea and Miller are both, in some ways, trying to appeal to disgruntled Republicans.

Miller wants to rally conservatives who were unhappy with Murkowski’s appointment and who do not trust her recent move to the right.

Shea says he wants to “transform” the Alaska Republican Party.

Despite the intraparty struggle, it is unclear if either Shea or Miller can deny Murkowski the nomination, political observers say.

Murkowski is the incumbent with a bulging war chest, has the establishment on her side and has outside interest groups running television advertisements on her behalf.

Miller has said he does not need to match Murkowski in the money department, but he is clearly hoping to tap some of the same national conservative veins that funded the unsuccessful challenge conservative Rep. Pat Toomey made against moderate Sen. Arlen Specter in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary in April.

Miller is in Washington, D.C., this week trying to win support from prominent, deep-pocketed Republican groups such as the Club for Growth.

“At one time, some people thought Tony Knowles would win the race hands-down,” one Alaskan GOPer said.

“But the primary will help eliminate the nepotism issue,” he said, predicting a Murkowski victory.

Now that two Republicans are challenging her and splitting the opposition, Murkowski is even more likely to win the nomination, the source said, echoing the GOP conventional wisdom in Alaska.

But Shepro, the political scientist, said he thinks Shea’s entrance in the race could have the opposite effect.

“I think Shea’s entrance into the race weakens her position,” Shepro said, adding that he thinks Murkowski and Shea could split the “moderate” primary vote, handing the nomination to Miller.

Shea, an attorney in private practice, only entered the race June 1 but presumably will not be able to match Murkowski in the fundraising department either.

Nevertheless, he already ran a half-page ad in the state’s largest newspaper.

“It’s just getting started,” Shea said of his efforts. “I’m putting some money in there. My natural base is conservatives, but it cuts across the whole state, Republicans, independents. I haven’t sought anything yet, but it’s going to be fun.”

Most political observers prefer not to lay down any bets in this unusual primary contest, but all agree it will be one of the most interesting races Alaska has ever seen.

And opinions differ as to whether the Republicans can unify after the primary or whether their internal bickering will spill over to the general election contest against the formidable Knowles.