Murkowski, Palin, and the Pros and Cons of Incumbency

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Today's Alaska Republican primary for Senate is a twist on this season's traditional narrative: entrenched incumbent versus a Tea Party, Sarah Palin-backed insurgent -- except this incumbent is popular, and Palin's endorsement of the insurgent is partly rooted in a personal rift between her and said incumbent.

Lisa Murkowski, who was appointed to the Senate by her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski, in 2002 and now ranks fifth in the Senate Republican leadership, is facing a challenge from Joe Miller, a veteran and former judge who has never been elected to office. With her family's political background and her close relationship with longtime Alaska senator Ted Stevens, who died in a plane crash two weeks ago, Murkowski is just the kind of incumbent Tea Partiers across the country have been rallying to replace. While this tactic has worked in some cases -- Bob Bennett losing his seat in Utah, for example -- Alaska's electorate may be less susceptible to the anti-incumbent epidemic.  

While no major, nationwide polling firms have conducted surveys on the race, an Anchorage firm polled 650 registered voters in July and found that 62 percent favored Murkowski while 30 percent favored Miller. Murkowski also holds a significant financial advantage, reporting $1.8 million in cash on hand in early August to Miller's $84,000.   
 
Miller has received significant help from Tea Party Express, the group that transformed Sharron Angle into Nevada's Republican nominee for Senate. So far, Tea Party Express has spent over $550,000 on the Miller/Murkowski race, distributed across TV, radio and mail. Miller has also received high-profile endorsements from Mike Huckabee and Sarah Palin, who conducted a last-minute robocall for him. Palin's husband Todd also held a fundraiser for Miller in May.

While Palin's endorsement has helped vault candidates like South Carolina's Nikki Haley and Oklahoma's Mary Fallin to Republican nominations, it is unlikely to do so for Miller. Palin's favorability is down nationally, and Alaska is no different. In April, local pollster Dittman Research found that just 46 percent of Alaskans saw her favorably. While this number shot up to 71 percent with registered Republican voters, it dropped to 39 percent among independents -- significant because independent voters can cast ballots in today's Republican primary.

Murkowski, on the other hand, is well-liked by Alaskans. In April, Dittman Research found that 62 percent of those surveyed said that she should be re-elected. As of July, Murkowski's negative rating was just 29 percent, compared to Palin's 47. The two women have been publicly feuding recently, with Murkowski accusing Palin of "abandoning" Alaska when she resigned as governor last year. In her subsequent endorsement of Miller, Palin called Murkowski "part of the big government problem in Washington." The Palin/Murkowski history goes back to 2002, when Frank Murkowski passed over Palin for the Senate appointment in order to give it to his daughter, a move that was widely decried as nepotism. In 2006, sitting governor Frank suffered an embarrassing loss to Palin in the state's Republican gubernatorial primary. 

One thing Alaskans seem to appreciate about Murkowski is the very quality Miller and Palin have attacked her for: her familiarity with Washington. In a state that is largely dependent on federal funding for pipelines, roads, and bridges (cue the "Bridge to Nowhere" reference), residents expect their lawmakers to negotiate successfully on their behalf. The late Sen. Stevens had mastered this art, and Alaskans rewarded him with 41 years in the Senate.

Murkowski is playing up her close relationship with Stevens in her campaign. After he died on August 9, she changed her Facebook photo to a picture of herself and him. And at a fundraiser days before his death, she made the case that "seniority actually means something in the Senate."

Given the unusual electoral politics of Alaska, a Murkowski win today would not prove a reversal of the anti-incumbent tide. But it would serve as a reminder that Palin's power only goes so far.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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