Murkowski Wins Primary, But Democrats Claim Advantage

Posted August 25, 2004 at 11:32am

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) trounced her three opponents in Tuesday’s GOP primary but her performance against former state Sen. Mike Miller gave both parties room to boast.

Murkowski, a former state legislator who was appointed to the Senate seat, captured 58 percent of the primary vote and Miller took 37 percent while former U.S. attorney for Alaska Wev Shea pulled in 4 percent and perennial candidate Jim Dore won just 1 percent.

She will face former Gov. Tony Knowles (D) in November.

As soon as Murkowski passed her first federal electoral test, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee declared her victory an ominous sign for the Republican.

As of Tuesday night’s results the “incumbent Senator had two of every five voters in her own party vote against her,” Cara Morris, a DSCC spokeswoman, said. “Just one month ago polls showed Murkowski with a 34-point lead over Miller showing just how much this race moved in the last month.”

(The last Ivan Moore poll conducted in late July for KTUU-TV in Anchorage showed Murkowski leading Miller 63 percent to 29 percent.)

“Some primaries bolster a candidate but that was not the case here,” Morris said.

But the National Republican Senatorial Committee declared the contest a drubbing and said Murkowski is now in prime position to take on Knowles.

“Lisa’s strong win last night is a validation of her ability to deliver for the people of Alaska,” NRSC Chairman George Allen (Va.) said in a statement.

He then implored the party to coalesce around its nominee.

“Republicans must come together and emerge from our intra-squad scrimmage as a united team focused on victory in the fall,” Allen stated. “Primaries by nature are competitive affairs where winners emerge tested by the experience and steeled by a hard fought victory. Lisa Murkowski has been tested and is stronger for it from many angles.”

While Miller promised when he began his campaign in April to support the eventual nominee, it is unclear if all Republicans will follow suit.

Representatives of Miller backer Alaska Right to Life, for example, had said publicly that it would sit out the general election if Murkowski won.

Further complicating matters for Murkowski is the Alaska Supreme Court’s decision to allow a voter-driven initiative to appear on the November ballot. The initiative seeks to prevent the governor from making any appointments to the Senate and instead would fill vacancies through special elections.

The GOP-controlled Alaska Legislature tried to nullify the impact of the initiative on Murkowski — who was appointed to the Senate by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski (R), to finish his Senate term in 2002 — by approving a similar law.

Lt. Gov. Loren Leman (R), who oversees the elections division and threw his primary support behind Miller, ruled that the new law was close enough to the initiative to knock it off the November ballot even though it still allowed the governor to make temporary appointments. The initiative would require a special election to be held 60 to 90 days after a vacancy occurs.

Last week the Supreme Court overturned Leman’s decision, paving the way for Murkowski to share the ballot with an initiative that questions the manner in which she got her job.

Miller tried to run to the right of Murkowski and spent the campaign, in which he was woefully underfunded, hammering Murkowski for not being a true conservative. He often charged that there was no difference between her stances and those taken by Knowles.

But while Miller had the firm support of voters who oppose abortion rights, he ultimately could not woo enough Republicans to topple Murkowski, the establishment choice.

By way of comparison, Frank Murkowski never earned less than 59 percent in a primary, and that came in his first run for Senate in 1980. In his re-election bids he never received less than 72 percent of the primary vote.

For his part, Knowles coasted to victory over his nominal primary opposition and was able to conserve the bulk of his war chest for November.