Joe Miller’s stunning victory over Lisa Murkowski to win the Alaska’s GOP primary for the Senate is remarkable on many levels, yet the bottom line makes perfect sense. Miller’s victory is the latest part of a continuing saga that began when Scott Brown defeated Martha Coakley in Massachusetts in January. Voters are fed up with big government, fed up with enormous debt, and fed up with professional politicians of every stripe. There’s a scene in the 1969 film “Patton” that illustrates the mood of the electorate today. George C. Scott, portraying the famed general, is frustrated with what he perceives to be a subordinate’s incompetence. Patton relieves the man of command, turns the unit over to the former commander’s executive officer and snarls menacingly: “You’ve got four hours to break through that beachhead. If you don’t make it, I’ll fire you!”
In this election cycle, the fact that a politician has a “D” or an “R” behind his name is not a critical factor. Party affiliation still matters of course, but not nearly so much as being an outsider matters. It’s a tough year to be an incumbent or to be viewed, as Lisa Murkowski was, as a Washington insider. For years, candidates have promised to break away from “politics as usual” if elected to Congress. Few have actually delivered on that promise on either side of the aisle. Fed up, a large portion of the populace is applying a new kind of test before they cast their votes: the more disconnected from the political mainstream a candidate is, the more likely the candidate is to win votes of vast swaths of the discontented, disillusioned electorate. The Tea Party movement is surely the most tangible manifestation of this sentiment, but it’s clear that this ballot box rebellion isn’t just about the Tea Party. Nor is it just about dissatisfaction with Congress, or the administration, or big government. It’s about all of the above, and more. It is, at the most basic level, about the direction that the country is headed and who has been responsible for steering the ship of state.
In ordinary times, there is no way that a candidate like Joe Miller would have stood a chance in this primary. Lisa Murkowski is part of a powerful family that has long been a force in Alaskan politics. She raised more than ten times as much money as her virtually unknown opponent did. While far from a solid conservative, she is still right of center on most issues. In the reliably Republican, sparsely-populated, state of Alaska, Murkowski’s combination of power, money, and name recognition should have made her a shoo-in.
Sarah Palin’s endorsement and the support of the Tea Party Express were invaluable factors in Miller’s victory, but it was the candidate’s eagerness to distance his agenda from his opponent’s that put him over the top. Miller called for repeal of the federal income tax, the return of federal lands in Alaska to state jurisdiction (sixty per cent of Alaska is under federal control) and restricting federal powers to those strictly enumerated in the Constitution. Two years ago, such positions would have been deemed so extreme that no candidate would dare express them. Indeed, there has traditionally been little to distinguish the agenda of a winning candidate from that of a losing candidate in a typical election, particularly in a primary. All candidates are privy to the same sort of polling data. They know what sells and they know what’s important to voters. Competing messages have thus always been more a matter of nuance than substance, with dollars in the campaign war chest usually deciding who could achieve better messaging and thus win an election.
Miller vs. Murkowski didn’t follow the traditional pattern. If Murkowski wanted to paint Miller as an “extremist,” he was not troubled by that label. His Democrat opponent, Scott McAdams is certain to go down that road too, but Miller views that charge as one that does his opponent’s campaign more harm than good. If someone is going to call what he stands for “extremist,” Miller has said, then they are in effect calling the founders of our nation extremists as well. Joe Miller demanded that Alaskans pick a side in this ideological battle and then he clearly defined which side he was on. This primary was a microcosm of the on-going battle for our country’s heart and soul that will flare brightly in 2010. America is deeply divided right now, and those divisions are reflected in election after election. Voters aren’t being asked to figure out shades of meaning or to decipher subtle messages, they are being presented with very clear, very different, choices.
The trend frightens liberals, who believe that anyone unwilling to recognize multiple shades of gray whenever principles are at issue must be a dangerous right-wing fanatic. They desperately want to believe that the election of candidates like Joe Miller means that the Republican Party is divided, disintegrating, and desperate. In fact, every time someone like Joe Miller wins a race, they help chart a new course for the GOP in a year in which Republicans are being sent a clear message: provide America with a real alternative to big-government-as-usual or get out of the way. Miller’s victory is just the latest bit of evidence to suggest that Republican voters understand what’s at stake and are thus leading the party back to the principles that once defined it.