Senator’s First Test in Last Frontier

Murkowski Spends Heavily to Fend Off Miller

Posted August 13, 2004 at 6:47pm

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) is preparing for her first electoral challenge since being appointed to the Senate by her father two years ago, and if polls are any indicator, she will win the Aug. 24 primary handily.

Murkowski led her closest competitor, former state Cabinet official Mike Miller, 63 percent to 29 percent, in the latest poll and has raised more money in a month than he has generated since entering the race in April.

“We take everything very seriously but all indications point to us being victorious,” said Murkowski campaign spokesman Elliott Bundy, referencing the monthly survey conducted by Ivan Moore for KTUU-TV in Anchorage.

Nonetheless, Murkowski has taken nothing for granted in the high-stakes battle to retain her seat.

While declining to cite a dollar amount, Bundy acknowledged that Murkowski has spent significant resources battling Miller, who quit Frank Murkowski’s (R) administration to run against the governor’s daughter.

In addition to issuing press releases and position papers, Murkowski has run at least two radio spots and two television commercials to counter Miller’s charges that she is not conservative enough to represent Alaska.

“It’s a symptom of what we have to do if our ultimate goal is to win in November,” Bundy said, explaining why Murkowski is responding with paid ads to someone she is leading by more than 30 points. “The Democrats would like to see Miller win the primary, as a result we have to fight a two-front war.”

While Murkowski’s chief Democratic rival, former Gov. Tony Knowles, has been free to attack her during the primary because he faces no real opposition on his way to the nomination, Murkowski has had to counter both Miller and Knowles. For example, one of the Murkowski TV spots challenges Miller and Knowles at the same time, Bundy explained.

Miller’s campaign does not believe Murkowski is as confident as her campaign sounds, and he still thinks they can pull out a surprise victory.

“We don’t believe the polls and I don’t think Lisa Murkowski does either or she wouldn’t be on TV right now running ads attacking [Miller] personally,” Miller spokesman Mike Pauley said. “Anyone who is truly up 30 or 40 points in the polls would not do that.”

One issue that has dogged Murkowski throughout the primary is nepotism. It has been her albatross since the December 2002 appointment and Miller largely has staked his campaign on the belief that enough Republicans were offended by the governor’s decision to appoint his own daughter to succeed him that they would punish her in the primary.

After entering the race late, Miller made a play for conservative voters by highlighting Murkowski’s past support of abortion rights and a state income tax while in the Legislature.

A battle of endorsements ensued with the National Rifle Association and most the state’s Republican leaders backing Murkowski from the start and the National Right to Life Committee and Lt. Gov. Loren Leman (R) breaking with the governor and the National Republican Senatorial Committee to support Miller.

Despite mentioning that Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) support her at almost every turn, Murkowski has yet to tout an endorsement from Dad even though he is the state’s top Republican.

“People take that as a given that he is endorsing her,” Bundy said. “We’re by no means trying to avoid the governor [but] … having the governor endorse Lisa would be a non-starter for us. It’s better to have less obvious endorsements.”

And more popular ones, Bundy might have added.

Gov. Murkowski’s approval ratings have bottomed out — dropping into the 30s recently — and he remains quite unpopular half-way through his first term. The state is in a budget crunch and the governor often has crossed swords with the GOP-controlled Legislature.

Going into the primary’s home stretch, Miller is working feverishly to turn out the conservative vote, Pauley said.

“We’re focused on radio and mail for the final days [that feature] her inconsistent, checkered record on everything from Second Amendment rights to abortion funding to an income tax,” Pauley said.

Democrats like to point out that Miller’s campaign has forced Murkowski to the right but Murkowski’s campaign denies the Senator has changed positions.

“We are by no means repackaging the Senator,” Bundy said. “The only thing she has done is to clarify her positions.”

Which has worked, according to Bundy, even though he admits Miller has tried to say there is no daylight between Murkowski and Knowles.

“After months of having to further define herself, no Alaskan would believe she and Knowles are the same,” Bundy said.

While Murkowski and Miller are not alone in the race, other candidates — perennial campaigner Jim Dore and former U.S. attorney Wev Shea —are not serious contenders.

While Miller and Murkowski battle, Democrats are asking the faithful not to be disappointed if Murkowski secures far more votes in her primary than Knowles does in his.

The GOP primary is open only to Republicans and independents while Knowles has to share a ballot with Green Party candidate Jim Sykes as well as candidates from the Libertarian and Alaska Independence Party because of a quirk in Alaska’s primary law.

Democratic-leaning independents, assured that Knowles will carry the day, may opt for the more competitive GOP ballots, party leaders have warned. For instance, many local races feature an all-Republican lineup.

A majority of Alaskans, 52 percent, are not registered with any party.