Sarah Palin, Tea Party activists put to test in Alaska GOP Senate primary

The Tea Party’s message of fiscal conservatism and the clout of Sarah Palin might prove to have limited influence in Alaska — a state that welcomes federal dollars.

Both the conservative group and the former governor’s coat tails will be tested Tuesday, as they are backing attorney Joe Miller's (R) primary challenge against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska).

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Casting a shadow over Palin's involvement is her political feud with the Murkowskis and her upside-down approval ratings in the state where she was once one of the nation's most popular governors. Palin defeated Murkowski's father, Frank Murkowski (R), in a 2006 primary for governor and has had a rocky relationship with Sen. Murkowski since.


Murkowski downplayed any possible “blood war” with Palin. 

“I think people who don’t know us or are from outside the state think that there’s some kind of blood war or something that goes on between the Palins and the Murkowskis. I would like to think that we will continue to have the respectful professional relationship,” she told The Hill earlier this month.
 
She also expressed surprise at Palin’s endorsement of Miller.

“It was a bit of a surprise, and only because she has been supportive of my work on behalf of the state of Alaska and has publicly said so,” Murkowski said.
 
Palin backed Miller on her Facebook page in June, but the 2008 vice presidential nominee waited until the Monday before the primary to record a last-minute robocall for the campaign. Also on Monday, Palin posted a fundraising appeal on her Facebook page trumpeting Miller's efforts to raise $30,000 for a late TV buy.

"Joe may be the underdog in this fight (because by using the power of a politician’s incumbency after being given her Senate seat by her father, Lisa Murkowski has outspent Joe six to one), but Alaskans see through this and are recognizing Joe’s ability to be a real leader," Palin wrote.

A Rasmussen poll from May found 50 percent of Alaska voters held an unfavorable view of Palin. Just 41 percent said they would back Palin for president in 2012 should she decide to run.



"I'm sure Palin's had an impact [on Miller]," said Alaska-based pollster Ivan Moore. "And I'm sure it’s been a net negative for him. You shouldn't even want the endorsement of someone with those ratings in the state."



The other complicating factor for Miller is Alaska's reticence to fully embrace the Tea Party's central message of slashing government spending and influence. Like most Tea Party-backed candidates, Miller has taken up the mantle of the anti-Washington, anti-establishment politician who will root out wasteful spending on the nation's capitol.



"The Tea Party movement just isn't very strong up here, which I guess is a bit ironic," said Moore.



The relationship between Alaskans and the federal government is a complicated one. Washington's influence has, at times, stood in the way of the state's economic priorities as well as buttressed them. And polls indicate a clear frustration on the part of many Alaska voters over the size of the federal budget deficit and a concern over the growth of government.



But Alaska is also a state that has welcomed money from the federal government for infrastructure and transportation projects. And voters have rewarded politicians who have proven adept at securing those dollars. So it's no surprise Miller's message might not resonate with Alaskans, who elected a man legendary for delivering earmarks for his home state to six terms in the Senate.


The late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was second only to the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) when it came to securing pork barrel spending for his home state. Were there more infrastructure in Alaska, joked one Republican consultant, Stevens might even rival Byrd for the number of roadways that bear his name.



"That messaging just doesn't resonate as well here," said one Republican close to the Murkowski camp. "Most Alaskans understand that federal government jobs are important to the Alaskan economy."



The state is home to the country's largest Coast Guard base, and much of the state's land is federally owned. Each citizen also receives a yearly dividend from oil revenues, typically as much as $2,000 per person. Millions upon millions of dollars in earmarks — demonized by some Republicans in Congress — have gone to projects in Alaska.


Even in the midst of a federal corruption probe back in 2007, Stevens managed to secure more than $200 million in earmarks from that year's defense spending bill and he unapologetically backed what became a symbol for wasteful spending in Washington — a $58 million project derided as the "bridge to nowhere."



Still, the Tea Party Express is convinced its message is resonating in Alaska. The group has spent more than $500,000 in the state this year, including a $18,915 buy placed Sunday and close to $36,000 on two last-minute mailers that hit mailboxes over the weekend, according to Federal Election Commission filings.
 
"The primary word is momentum," said Levi Russell, a spokesman for the Tea Party Express. "Once people hear Joe's message, they're on board."



Russell admits the state isn't under the fiscal cloud that hovers over many others, but he doesn't think it blunts the Tea Party's economic message.



"It is one of the few states that's in the black most of the time," said Russell. "But the Tea Party isn't saying stop government spending. We're just saying spend responsibly."



For her part, Murkowski is taking Miller's challenge seriously given the brutal anti-incumbent environment. She has spent heavily on TV ads and is taking nothing for granted. But she also isn't shying way from her incumbent status. She has argued on the campaign trail that her position in the Senate is crucial for the state.



Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and, as such, is in a prime position to deliver for Alaska, which is heavily reliant on the oil industry. Murkowski also has a seat on the Appropriations Committee.



A commanding win for Murkowski on Tuesday, could not only prove a rejection of the Tea Party's message in a state that some might think would embrace it, but it would also mark a rare win for an incumbent who is leading with her Washington credentials.
 
— Darren Goode contributed to this article.