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Sarah Palin and the Tea Partyers Create an Opening for Democrats | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

Breaking news and analysis of politics, the economy and activism.

Sarah Palin and the Tea Partyers Create an Opening for Democrats

For Democrats, Republican primaries are the gift that keeps on giving.

Just as a Nevada Republican primary result renewed the reelection prospects of Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid, just as a Connecticut GOP vote handed advantages to Democrat Richard Blumenthal, so an Alaskan primary has positioned Democrats to try for an upset on the Arctic Circle.

If there was one Senate race in the country that was not expected to be competitive this year, it was the contest in Alaska.

Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski was seeking a second full term, with a moderately conservative track record and one of the state’s biggest political names. She was never beloved by the far right, yet she had the political skills and the style that made it likely she would win Republican, independent and perhaps even a few Democratic votes in November.

But Murkowski appears to have lost a Republican primary where, with a boost from former Governor Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement, political newcomer Joe Miller has taken the lead.

Murkowski is refusing to concede and preparing for a fight—initially over absentee ballots that are yet to be counted and then via the recount process—that could extend well into the fall. National Republicans are moving to aid Murkowski, while Sarah Palin and the Tea Partisans are lining up behind Miller in what could turn out to be a bitterly divisive battle to settle a close primary.

If Miller ends up as the nominee, as seems likely, things will get interesting in Alaska—a state where, it should be noted, Democrats capitalized on a series of unfortunate events to dislodge a sitting US Senator in 2008.

Here’s why Democrats are rethinking the Alaska race?

1. Murkowski is mad. She refuses to rule out the prospect of running as a write-in or independent candidate in November. And Alaska has rich traditions of supporting renegade candidacies; indeed, when former Alaska Governor Walter Hickel fell out with conservative Republicans in 1990, he won a term as the candidate of the Alaska Independence Party.

2. Even if Murkowski does not make an independent or write-in run, a refusal by her to back Miller could weaken his bid.

3. Miller is an extreme player whose current stances on economic and social issues may have struck the fancy of the hard-right voters who dominated the Republican primary but who are not in touch with mainstream voters.

4. As recently as last month, Miller was calling for phasing out Social Security and Medicare and Medicaid. The Anchorage Daily News reported that: “Miller has called for across-the-board cuts, phasing out government Medicare and Social Security, and getting rid of the federal Department of Education because it is not in the Constitution, leaving the function to the states.” Says Miller: “Ultimately, we've got to transition out of the Social Security arrangement and go into more of a privatization. And you know, it's not that radical of an idea.”

5. Miller opposes federal unemployment benefits. Not only did he oppose extending existing benefits, he argued in July (according to an ABC NEW report) that providing assistance to out-of-work Americans is “not constitutionally authorized.”

6. In Alaska, arguably the most libertarian-leaning state in the nation, Miller is a militant proponent of getting big government into the business of making decisions about sex, sexuality and reproductive choices. When it comes to reproductive rights, Miller's a no-exceptions man, arguing that: "I am unequivocally pro-life and life must be protected from the moment of conception to the time of natural death."

7. In a state with a large and politically-engaged indigenous population, one of Miller’s primary themes was his opposition to providing federal funds to “Indian tribes to prosecute hate crimes.”

Add it all up and the Republican primary result looks like a political game-changer.

How much of a game-changer remains to be seen.

It would be silly to suggest that Democrats have an upper hand in the race for the Alaska seat. But they have the potential to be competitive. And they have a credible candidate in Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, a former local school board member whose experience is similar to that of Miller’s top backer—former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin—who was a mayor when she first ran for statewide office.

Taking a swipe at Miller’s lack of experience, McAdams noted that: "I'm the only candidate in this race who's ever balanced a budget. I'm the only candidate in this race who ever voted on a budget. I am by far the most experienced candidate in this race."

There has been some talk, mainly from pundits, about replacing McAdams with a higher profile Democrat, as could be done. But that a dangerous game. McAdams, a former deckhand on as the chairman of the Southeast Alaska Conference of Mayors, a board member of the Alaska Municipal League and a former president of the Association of Alaska School Boards. (In contrast to Miller, he’s been a leader on issues of concern to indigenous population, fighting to protect and expand Alaskan Native language instruction.)

McAdams is already on message, declaring Wednesday that "Yesterday, Alaskans sent an important message. They're ready for change. I am that change, not Joe Miller."

Ripping into Miller’s prehistoric policies, McAdams said, "I believe we are the moderate, rational, practical campaign, not the campaign of extreme measures and nineteenth-century ideology. Not only do they say no to progress in the form of things like developing Alaska through Congressionally vetted appropriations, but they also say no to social progress.… The Tea Party has been clear in rejecting the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and other great progress our society has made."

The Republicans are obviously worried. On Thursday, the general counsel of the National Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee, was dispatched to Alaska to “provide guidance” to Murkowski during an anticipated recount fight.

While Washington Republicans try to prevent the candidate of Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement from getting a place on the fall ballot, Democrats will be pardoned if they imagine the prospect of running a competitive—perhaps even a winning—Senate race in Alaska.

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