Murkowski Fights Two Opponents: Joe Miller and Tea Party Express


An unusual campaign narrative is developing in Alaska: incumbent Senator Lisa Murkowski is going head-to-head with a proxy for her competitor rather than the man himself.

It's unlikely that the previously unknown Joe Miller could have stolen the Republican nomination out from under Murkowski without the help of Tea Party Express, a California-based group that has helped orchestrate some of the season's biggest primary upsets. After the group announced it would be a key presence in the general election campaign (it said yesterday that it would spend "six figures" to defeat the sitting senator), Murkowski has gone negative on it with the zeal many think she should have channeled into her primary against Miller.

The video below, released on YouTube by Murkowski's campaign,* mentions Miller only in a reference to Tea Party Express's spending on his primary campaign. Everyday-looking Alaskans express outrage that an outside group is gunning for "our seat." "Well, whose Senate seat would it be, Alaska's or California's?" asks one woman indignantly.

And yesterday, Murkowski's campaign went even further, sending a letter to Alaska TV networks asking/warning them not to air ads from Tea Party Express. Murkowski's attorney claims that the group's ads are "littered with lies and intentional mischaracterizations" and that the networks have a "legal and moral obligation" not to air them. According to Steve Wackowski, Murkowski's spokesman, the campaign has not heard back from the networks, but the ad in question has not yet run.  

Tea Party Express has posted this ad -- titled "Arrogant Lisa Murkowski - You Lost!" -- online and is planning to air it statewide. In it, a narrator says, "Lisa Murkowski first got her U.S. Senate seat when her father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her. She didn't earn it." Murkowski's campaign points out that she won re-election in 2004, seemingly invalidating the notion that she didn't earn it. The ad also alleges that Murkowski "tried to influence the absentee vote count" and later tried to "manipulate the Libertarian Party into giving her their slot on the ballot." Murkowski's camp vehemently denies both of these accusations, and the chairman of Alaska's Libertarian Party has said that she did not attempt to manipulate the party.

But Murkowski's focus on Tea Party Express may be distracting her from her actual opponent on Nov. 2. Her first attack ad against Miller, a radio spot, backfired when a radio host cited in the ad endorsed Miller the day her campaign released it.

Over the next four weeks, it will be interesting to see whether Murkowski zeroes in on Miller or maintains her focus on Tea Party Express. After all, Miller's name will be the one on the November ballot.

Steve Wackowski, Murkowski's spokesman, says that her campaign is planning to run several TV ads in the coming weeks, and that these ads will contain a mix of "educational messaging" -- instructions on how to write in Murkowski's name, for example -- and more "proactive messaging."

*The Atlantic Politics Channel generally does not write about web videos released by campaigns, but the videos below illustrate a key trend in the Senate race in Alaska.

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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