Joe Miller's Klondike meltdown

Could Sarah Palin's state end up saving the Senate for Democrats?

By Steve Kornacki
Published November 1, 2010 12:30PM (EDT)

When he stunned Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Aug. 24 Republican primary, Joe Miller seemed to be on an unstoppable path to the U.S. Senate.

Murkowski's post-primary effort to seize the Libertarian Party's nomination failed, it was too late for her to file as an independent, and most assumed that her flirtation with a write-in candidacy was an idle threat -- an irrational posture from a politician who couldn't accept defeat. And no one at all gave any thought to Scott McAdams, the unknown mayor of Sitka who had claimed a Democratic nomination that no one else wanted. This was Alaska, perhaps the reddest state in the country, and this was 2010, the most pro-Republican year since at least 1994: With the GOP nomination in hand, there was just no way Miller could be beaten.

And yet, he may be on the verge of losing. With several polls showing Miller falling far behind, ABC News reported on Sunday that national Republicans have given up on their party's official candidate and that they are now focused on tearing down McAdams -- and pushing Murkowski, who did pursue that write-in bid after all, across the finish line. Tellingly, Jon Cornyn, who is running the GOP's Senate campaign efforts, said on ABC's "This Week" that "I think that polls are very close now between Sen. Murkowski and Joe Miller, and what we want to make sure of is that the Democrat doesn't win." (That said, a PPP poll released late Sunday night gave Miller the lead with 37 percent, with Murkowski and McAdams tied at 30.)

Miller's erosion of support is a vivid illustration of Tea Party overreach. His primary victory was triggered by a revolt of the GOP's conservative base -- otherwise known as the Tea Party -- against Murkowski, an establishment Republican and a personal enemy of Sarah Palin. But Miller, like several other Tea Party candidates in major races this fall, was a complete unknown to the press and to general election voters. And as the media turned its spotlight on him, he cracked up -- declaring that he wouldn't answer questions about his past and hiring a private security squad that actually handcuffed and "arrested" a reporter. Immediately after Murkowski entered as a write-in candidate, Miller led by double digits. But the latest surveys (besides PPP's) show him fading to a distant second or even third place, more than 10 points behind Murkowski.

If these findings are accurate, it's an amazing feat that Miller has pulled off. Alaska may be the most conservative and the most Republican state in the country. A generic Republican would win this race with ease. But through his own actions, and a series of damning revelations about his past conduct as a public employee, Miller has turned the race more into a referendum about himself than about Barack Obama, the Democratic Congress and the feeble economy.

And he has given Democrats a chance to pick up a Senate seat that, even in the best of years for their party, they'd have little chance of winning. Only two Democrats in the last 30 years have won statewide races in Alaska, and both owed their success to extenuating circumstances. In 2008, Mark Begich eked out a Senate victory over Ted Stevens -- perhaps because Stevens was convicted of federal corruption charges days before the election. And then there was Tony Knowles, who scored a 536-vote win in the 1994 gubernatorial race, a victory that was enabled by the presence of a right-wing third-party candidate who snared 13 percent of the vote.

Knowles' example is very relevant now. The '94 climate was just as awful for Democrats as this year's. In a two-way race, Knowles wouldn't have had much chance -- much like McAdams now. But with the GOP vote split, he was able to win with just over 40 percent. McAdams isn't there yet; he's polling just under 30 percent right now. But with many of Murkowski's write-in votes likely to be tossed out for spelling errors, McAdams could theoretically win with a vote share in the mid-30s. It's still a tall order, but if he could pull this race out, it would obliterate the GOP's chances of winning back the Senate. No Republican takeover scenario allows for a lost seat in Alaska.

Of course, the mostly likely outcome now is a Murkowski win. While not all of her write-in votes will stand up to scrutiny, she seems to have a margin for error, with Miller and McAdams each about 10 points behind her. And if she wins, she'll simply return to the GOP fold in the Senate, as Cornyn's Sunday comments suggested. So a Miller defeat isn't necessarily great news for Democrats (as much as they might enjoy seeing a Palin ally go down). Still, the mere fact that it's election eve and we're talking about the Democrats' chances to score a pickup in Alaska is unquestionably one of the few truly positive developments for the party in this otherwise miserable fall.

Steve Kornacki

Steve Kornacki is an MSNBC host and political correspondent. Previously, he hosted “Up with Steve Kornacki” on Saturday and Sunday 8-10 a.m. ET and was a co-host on MSNBC’s ensemble show “The Cycle.” He has written for the New York Observer, covered Congress for Roll Call, and was the politics editor for Salon. His book, which focuses on the political history of the 1990s, is due out in 2017.

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