Alaska Insiders Point Fingers at Murkowski Aides

Posted August 25, 2010 at 3:01pm

Updated: Aug. 26, 2:30 p.m.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) trails primary challenger Joe Miller as the state awaits final results, but already some Republicans on the ground are talking about what went wrong for Murkowski.

Though Murkowski’s political fate is not yet certain, Miller leads by fewer than 2,000 votes with 98 percent of precincts reporting. As many as 16,000 absentee ballots must be tabulated over the next two weeks.

The Senator said Wednesday that she is waiting on the absentee ballots and that it is “way, way, way too premature to even be talking about” the possibility of making a third-party or Independent write-in bid, the Anchorage Daily News reported.

One GOP source, who requested anonymity, said some are pointing fingers at Murkowski’s team of advisers who told her not to go negative until late in the campaign.

Unlike Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who recognized the difficulty he was facing in the primary early on and was aggressive in defining his opponent, Murkowski held off until very late in the campaign.

Other factors in the race included a ballot measure on parental notification of abortions for minors, an issue that enthused many anti-abortion voters; the Anchorage Daily News reported that it may have contributed to Miller’s strong performance. Also, the rise of the tea party and simultaneous angst over all things Washington, D.C., were at play.

Murkowski’s team includes campaign manager John Bitney, who some sources said did not realize the danger his candidate was really in.

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who endorsed Miller, ridiculed Bitney in her book “Going Rogue” despite the fact that Bitney is widely credited as a major contributor to her successful 2006 gubernatorial campaign and has been a well-respected operative in the state.

Some Alaska insiders also criticized general consultants Ladonna Lee and Eddie Mahe, both of Foley & Lardner, who have worked previously for both Murkowski and her father, former Gov. and Sen. Frank Murkowski (R), as well as for former Sen. Conrad Burns (R-Mont.) until his defeat in 2006.

However, the duo may have been tasked with fewer responsibilities than some outsiders realized, and they did score a victory in the Republican primary for lieutenant governor.

“When you make a statement about someone’s performance, you have to know the scope of their roles,” Lee said. “When the financial disclosure reports are published, you will see that the level of involvement we had is far different than we’ve had in previous Murkowski campaigns.”

“Every campaign has different dynamics, and as in this one, the candidate often weighs in,” she added.

While many political observers were surprised by Murkowski’s imperiled primary bid, there were recent signs that she was in trouble.

Murkowski’s campaign released a last-minute radio ad featuring a clip from well-known Alaskan talk show host Dan Fagan’s Aug. 5 show, during which he screamed at Miller for supposedly distorting Murkowski’s stance on repealing the health care reform law.

Shortly after the ad was released, however, Fagan endorsed Miller after reportedly examining Murkowski’s voting record more closely.

It became apparent a couple of weeks ago that the race was headed south, according to the well-placed GOP source, so Karen Knutson, Murkowski’s chief of staff, was summoned to Alaska to assist in the final surge toward the election. Knutson, a native Alaskan who has worked for Murkowski since 2007, is regarded as a sharp strategist.

A spokesman in Murkowski’s Senate office did not answer a question about whether Knutson was in Alaska working on the campaign and did not return a call from Roll Call.