In our continuing recap of the 2010 Midterm Elections, we turn our focus to a race that was only recently decided, two weeks after the end of election night. The race was a three-way contest in Alaska, and like almost every other race, it was a combination of local politics and national issues. It was also, perhaps, the most unusual and surprising race of the season.
Alaska is regularly one of the most conservative states in the union, although what conservative means in Alaska is different from what it means in Kentucky. Alaska is also a small state (in population), which means that personal alliances and relationships play a much more important role than they would in a more populous state. Especially in 2010, when the Republican part was even stronger than usual, the real election would seem to be the Republican Primary Election, with whoever won it being a foregone conclusion to win the seat. The serving senator was Lisa Murkowski, a scion of one of Alaska's political dynasties, who had originally been appointed to that post be her father, the governor. Senator Murkowski was, by Alaska standards, quite moderate, so she was facing a challenge in the primaries, from Joe Miller, who was affiliated both with the Tea Party and was personally endorsed by Sarah Palin. Miller went on to win the primary election by 51% to 49% over Murkowski.
Shortly afterwards, Murkowski announced that she would continue her campaign as a write-in candidate. There could be several reasons for this decision: for one thing, the primaries are quite a deal more conservative than the general election, so the fact that even amongst these voters, Miller had a very small lead meant that he did not enjoy wide support. Because Alaska is a small state, Murkowski was probably in direct contact with more of her constituents than most senators would be, and therefore would have more loyalty. And also, while the feud between the Murkowski faction and the Palin faction of the Alaskan republican establishment has some ideological basis, it also seems (if this isn't indulging in stereotypes), to be a personal feud. In other words, Murkowski just wasn't going to go down to Palin's hand-picked candidate without a fight. Also, in 2010, Murkowski didn't have to worry too much that dividing the conservative vote would throw the race to the Democratic candidate, Scott McAdams.
Running a write-in candidacy is not an easy thing to do. Although there will usually be some protest voters, there hasn't been a successful write-in candidate for the US Senate since Strom Thurmond in the 1950s. However, Murkowski had several things going for her, such as good name recognition and a small state where she was personally well known. After Joe Miller made some mis-steps, such as a spat with his patron Sarah Palin where he refused to say she was qualified to be president, and where his security guards handcuffed a reporter who was trying to question him; there were enough doubts about him that Murkowski started to look like a viable contender. And once she was shown to be a viable contender, people became more likely to vote for her, unafraid of throwing their votes away. The result was that on election night, "write-in" seemed to jump to an early and clear lead in the senate race, something it would maintain throughout the night. Of course, not all of those write-in votes were for Murkowski, and even those that were perhaps not valid, but it still seemed that she had a good lead. She was ahead of Miller, with Scott McAdams, the Democratic candidate, trailing far behind.
Some two weeks later, the Associated Press called the race for Murkowski, although Joe Miller has not conceded and is still planning several lawsuits over her write-in votes. The final tally, according to the the US Election Atlas, is 36% of the vote for Murkowski, 35% for Miller, and 24% for McAdams, with several percentage points in contested write-in voters.
The biggest lesson in the election for me is about the gigantic effect of dog food on United States politics. All politicians eat dog food, the Republican Party more than the Democratic Party, and the Tea Party seems to be the biggest dog fooders yet. The narrative that they used for their campaigns was that their was a gigantic undercurrent of voters who would turn out for any politician who could repeat the phrase "smaller government" enough times, and that the only reason that this gigantic wave of conservative populist sentiment hadn't swept the country was because of the efforts of party establishments to constrain it. Such a narrative is fine as a means of public relations, the problem is that the Tea Party actually believes it. And yet, in 2010, a wave year for the tea party, and in Alaska, a state that is perhaps the most conservative and libertarian in the nation, the tea party candidate lost the election, even though his opponent had to go through the uphill process of a write-in candidacy to do so. In other words, American politics is not simple---a lesson that everyone should know, and that this election reinforces, but that I doubt will enter very firmly into the minds of the people need to know it best.