Alaskanfusion in Senate Seat

By Kennedy Maize

Washington, D.C., December 1, 2010 – At this point, probably only one person in America believes that Lisa Murkowski did not win Alaska’s November election to the U.S. Senate. Unfortunately, that one person is defeated Republican nominee Joe Miller, who refuses to drop what has become an entirely quixotic effort to stave off the inevitable: his departure from the political scene.

Miller refuses to acknowledge that Murkowski, the incumbent Republican senator whom Miller knocked off in the GOP primary, beat him soundly through an improbable write-in campaign last month. Miller is suing in every legal venue he can find, arguing that if a voter could not spell “Murkowski” with exactitude, the vote should not count. Call it the spelling bee salient.

But Miller’s refusnik status clouds the outlook for the new Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, where Murkowski was the ranking Republican in the 111th Congress. Her daddy, Frank, was the committee chairman during the last Republican rule in the U.S. Senate (1995-2001). Frank appointed Lisa to the Senate in 2002 when he became Alaska’s governor, vacating the Senate seat. She won the seat in her own right in 2004, the first woman senator elected from Alaska and the first Alaska senator actually born in the state, admitted to the union in 1959.

Here it gets complicated and bitterly personal. Sarah Palin – remember her? – knocked off Frank Murkowski in the 2006 Republican primary in his bid for a second term as governor (he reportedly considered naming Palin to his vacant Senate seat before deciding on his daughter, a member of the Alaska House of Representatives). Palin, mayor of the town of Wasilla at the time, ran as a good-government moderate (no mention of Mama Grizzly in that campaign that I recall). Frank Murkowski was in trouble from the beginning, weighed down by the scent of scandal in a failed natural gas pipeline deal. Palin defeated Murkowski outright, with 51 percent; the incumbent governor came in third, behind a Fairbanks businessman. Palin won the general election easily, becoming Alaska’s first female governor, and then the GOP’s first woman vice presidential nominee.

Fast forward to 2010.  A relative unknown, Miller, decided to take on Lisa Murkowski from the right. She’s a moderate Republican who is pro-choice, making her vulnerable in a year when the hard right is ascendant. Miller had the backing of local Tea Party forces. Late in the primary season, sensing that Murkowski was vulnerable, Sarah Palin endorsed Miller, who won the GOP primary.

But Murkowski sensed that Miller’s partisan victory was a political fluke and mounted a general election write-in campaign, the most successful since Strom Thurmond of South Carolina won a Senate seat on a 1954 write-in race. With virtually all the ballots now counted, Miller has virtually no chance of overcoming Murkowski’s lead, even if all the disputed ballots are counted in his favor. His only hope is the courts, where he is mounting challenges in both federal and state venues.

In the meantime, will the Senate seat Murkowski in January if the litigation is still pending? Will Miller be able to get an injunction keeping the election results in limbo until the lawsuits are decided? Is this a re-run of the 2010 Minnesota Senate election, where the state was denied a second Senator for much of the year until Al Franken emerged victorious in a far closer race than the Alaska contest?

Perhaps most vexing is what will happen if Murkowski is sworn in as Alaska’s senior senator, resuming her Washington career. Is she a Republican? She says she is and will vote with the Republican caucus. But she was not the GOP nominee and some in the party regard her the way some Democrats regard Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, as a traitor to their party.

Murkowski gave up a party leadership position she held in the 111th Congress when she lost the Republican nomination in Alaska. But what about her senior role in the energy committee? It is far from clear whether she will retain the ranking GOP slot on the important committee, a committee particularly valuable in mineral-rich Alaska. The answer may not be known until next year.

But it could have been more confusing. Thanks to Palin and South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, the GOP failed to win control of the Senate. Had the Republicans run stronger candidates in Alaska, Delaware, Nevada, and Colorado, they might have won the Senate. Then the question would have been whether Murkowski, the apostate Republican, would be energy committee chairman.