September 7, 2010

DAVID B. OFFER: Will Palin and the tea party take on Snowe in 2012?

David B. Offer

I didn't meet Sarah Palin during my year in Alaska.

That's no surprise. She resigned as governor before I arrived in the state and was seldom there during my year teaching at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.

But no matter where she was, Palin was a major focus of discussion everywhere I went.

Would she run for president? How rich has she become? Would Bristol marry Levi -- and should she? What's Todd doing these days?

And, as Palin began to involve herself in this years' campaigns, the conversation was about how much her endorsement mattered.

That was certainly true in June when Palin stepped into the Republican Senate campaign in Alaska by endorsing challenger Joe Miller against incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Miller's victory last week provided additional evidence that, at least among tea party Republicans, Palin has become an important political force.

It would be no surprise to see Palin in Maine before the 2012 election, either as a candidate for president or supporting an insurgent campaign against Sen. Olympia Snowe, who will be up for re-election.

Snowe, and Sen. Susan Collins, have long been targets of those on the right who object to their moderate approach to politics.

Murkowski's defeat is evidence that the right has increasing power in Republican politics. Even with Palin's backing, there was substantial doubt that Miller could defeat Murkowski in Alaska, but that was before the Tea Party Express went to work, donating nearly $600,000 to Miller, who campaigned as a "constitutional conservative."

When I left Alaska at the end of July, Murkowski was still the clear favorite. Alaska Public Radio reported that an independent poll showed her ahead 62 percent to 30 percent for Miller. Fewer than half of poll respondents even recognized Miller's name, compared to 98 percent for Murkowski.

Then the tea party dollars started paying for TV commercials portraying Murkowski as a left-leaning senator who was part of the problem in Washington.

The commercials echoed those used against John McCain in Arizona.

They were untrue.

Writing in the Atlantic, Nicole Allan commented that Miller's commercials ruthlessly attacked Murkowski, claiming that she supported the stimulus (she voted against it) and did not want to repeal health care reform (she said she does). Miller also went after Murkowski's mixed record on abortion, targeting anti-abortion-rights voters who were drawn to the polls by a parental notification initiative. Miller's victory makes him the fifth tea party candidate to win a GOP Senate primary, following Sharon Angle in Nevada, Rand Paul in Kentucky, Ken Buck in Colorado, and Mike Lee in Utah. In her eight years in Washington, Murkowski became known as a moderate Republican dedicated to issues important to Alaska. She is certainly more conservative than Senate Democrats but -- much like Snowe and Collins -- she was willing to cross the political aisle to seek compromise.

Every election is different, and the Murkowski/Miller campaign had its own dynamic. At first, Murkowski did not seem to take the Miller challenge seriously. Polls showed her well ahead; she was far better known and had the power of incumbency to generate news. By the time Murkowski began to campaign seriously, Miller -- with Palin and the tea party behind him -- was making inroads.

Like McCain, Murkowski tried to counter the tea party attack by moving right -- she voted against confirming Elena Kagan for the Supreme Court -- but it was too little, too late to appease the tea partiers and certainly did nothing to heal relationships with Palin, who resented Murkowski's criticism of her resignation as governor.

However, Miller may lack enough support outside his tea party base to win the general election. Public Policy Polling, an independent firm, reported that a recent poll shows that 52 percent of voters have an unfavorable opinion of Miller while only 36 percent see him positively.

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