Political prognosticators were surprised to wake up this morning and see Joe Miller holding a narrow lead of less than 3,000 votes over Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska's Republican primary.
Unofficial returns as of this morning -- with 84.2 percent of precincts reporting -- showed Miller leading with 45,188 votes to Murkowski's 42,633 votes. That's Miller 51.5%-Murkowski 48.6%. What's more, the votes outstanding are from rural areas and 8,400 so-far-unreturned absentee ballots, so the final result won't be known for at least a week and might be undetermined until Sept. 8.
First, give the Sage of Wasilla credit. Right now, I don’t know whether or not Joe Miller will actually knock off Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Alaska primary, but even if he ultimately falls just short (and he’s leading now, so it’s at least just as likely that he’ll prevail), Sarah Palin’s reputation will surely be enhanced by her endorsement of an unknown insurgent against a sitting Senator. Did she carefully and correctly assess Miller’s chances of winning before she took to her usual combo of Facebook and Twitter, or was she just carrying on her personal feud with Murkowski’s family? Did her endorsement actually make any difference in the contest? I have no idea the answer to either question, but in terms of her national reputation, neither matters: all that anyone is going to know is that she endorsed a nobody who either took down a sitting Senator or came close. Maybe her endorsement mattered, but if not, figuring out which way the parade is headed and jumping out in front is an important political skill, and she at the very least seemed to have that working this time around.
Second...no matter what the final result, but especially if Miller wins: these primaries are sending a very strong message to GOP pols about the dangers of ever allowing any space to develop between themselves and movement conservatives. And that’s true whether or not that’s a message that Alaska’s primary voters are intending to send (it may be, as I said last night, that the explanation for this election has more to do with the reputation of the Murkowski name in Alaska along with general voter discontent with the economy than it has to do with her actual actions in the Senate): the interpretation everyone’s going to hear and believe is that ideological deviation, even very mild deviation, is extremely dangerous to one’s electoral health. Whether it’s the New START treaty, or a compromise deal on the budget if the GOP controls at least one House of Congress next year, or any other issue, you can be sure that Republican pols who have to cast tough votes are going to remember Bob Bennett and Lisa Murkowski (and Arlen Specter, for that matter).
In Alaska, Sarah Palin's endorsement does seem to matter. It's not like no one predicted that Joe Miller could be the next senator; former Gov. Tony Knowles told me a month ago that Murkowski was not taking Miller seriously and that he could easily organize a campaign to beat her in the primary. Absentees won't be fully counted for a while, but Miller's victory can be reasonably inferred from the outstanding ballots.
It is fairly clear that the anti-establishment / anti-Washington / pro-radical revolution plankton are feeding more off Republicans than off Democrats. As the year has unfolded, it has become easier and easier for formerly fringe candidates to find funding sources, get key "outsider" endorsements and shock complacent frontrunners. When it comes to the Tea Party factor, remember: about issues it ain't. Bill McCollum was one of the attorneys general who filed a lawsuit against Obama's health care reform bill. He is as conservative as a Blackberry at an Apple convention. But he has ties to the state's now-discredited Republican establishment (think of the indictment of the former party chairman) and his avuncular, amiable, comfortable-as-a-leather shoe style just doesn't fit with the times. Rick Scott didn't need the money, but the Tea Party Express helped him build a volunteer base. In Alaska, the same group ponied up $500,000 to help Miller (probably) defeat an incumbent U.S. senator.
Meanwhile, there was an equal surprise on the Democratic side:
Thanks to an old-fashioned political upset, Sitka, Alaska Mayor Scott McAdams is about to get a lot more ink.
McAdams (D) will face the winner of the Republican primary between Sen. Lisa Murkowski and Joe Miller, though we may not know for sure if Miller unseated Murkowski until next month. National Democrats tell us privately the Alaska Senate race wasn't even on their radar, until today when Miller's showing stunned Washington.
Well, we'll see.
Updated at 11:16pm, Pacific, where I added the Ambinder stuff, and changed the Post's title.