While the Murkowski-Miller results are not yet finalized, it's looking pretty certain that the Tea Party has pulled off yet another upset of an established Republican candidate. Joe Miller has yet to be defined for a national audience; the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is already painting him as a radical "extremist" who wants to phase out Social Security and Medicare, but it's not yet clear whether Miller will alienate middle-of-the-road Alaska Republicans.
If so, the Senate seat could be a prime pick-up opportunity for Democrats. There's just one problem: they don't have a viable nominee. Scott McAdams, who won the party's nomination yesterday, is the mayor of Sitka, a 9,000-person town in southeast Alaska. That's pretty much all anyone knows about him. No polling has been conducted, no major profiles have been written -- McAdams is a question mark.
Now that the seat might actually be in play, however, the Alaska Democratic Party could make a rapid revision to its game plan, replacing McAdams with a candidate of their choosing. The party's rules allow for it to replace a nominee, and they've done it before.
One likely option? Former Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles. The 67-year-old Democrat served from 1994 to 2002 but could not run again because of term limits. In 2004, he challenged Lisa Murkowski for Senate and lost. In 2006, he lost to Palin for governor (he was allowed to run for a third term if it was not consecutive to his prior two).
"He wasn't unpopular," says Dave Dittman, a major pollster in Alaska, "it's just that he'd already served two terms and there was the feeling that he'd served his time. I'd say he's probably still pretty formidable."
William Galston, a senior fellow in Governance Studies at the Brookings Institution, agrees that Knowles could have a real shot. "He enjoyed a lot of statewide popularity," Galston says. "And depending on how far Joe Miller is outside what passes for the mainstream in Alaska, Knowles might conceivably be able to pull off an upset." He continued:
Alaskans talk a much more robust libertarian language than they practice. I don't know what Miller stands for, whether he's taken positions akin to Rand Paul or Sharron Angle. If he's a stauncher conservative than Murkowski -- and I know the social issues also worked for him, at least within the Republican base -- but otherwise not demonstrably crazy, that's one thing. If he has endorsed the Alaska version of dissing the 1964 Civil Rights Act or dismantling Social Security, then a not-too-far-off-center Democrat like Tony Knowles might do pretty well.
This situation, of course, is entirely hypothetical. Murkowski has yet to officially lose the race, and the Alaska Democratic Party did not return a call for comment on whether they would replace McAdams. There are also rumors floating around that Murkowski could run as a third-party candidate, but Gail Fenumiai, director of Alaska's Division of Elections, told me that were Murkowski to lose, her only other option would be to run as a write-in candidate -- a next-to-impossible endeavor.
A source at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee said that the committee was working hard to catch up to last night's developments, which caught them, like everyone else, off guard. The DSCC and major donors would presumably have a much easier time getting behind an established force like Knowles than an unknown like McAdams.
UPDATE: Patti Higgins, chairman of the Alaska Democratic Party, denies the rumor. "Sure, it's possible, we can switch out a candidate, but we have absolutely no intention of doing that," she says. "Scott's our guy. He's no placeholder. We are going to be running a very serious, hard-shooting campaign, pointing out the very wide differences between the two candidates."
Asked how well-known McAdams is within Alaska, Higgins said, "It's a big state. Within southeastern Alaska, he's certainly very well known. Within the school education community and among the mayors, he's well-known."