Senate race could hinge on how Alaskans feel about federal cash

Alaska's Senate race is shaping up as a battle between a Democrat set to emphasize the importance of federal government spending in the state's economy and a Republican who has taken a pledge to abandon earmarks in the Senate.

Tea Party-backed Joe Miller completed his stunning upset of Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) last week when the incumbent conceded after failing to gain enough ground with a tally of thousands of additional absentee ballots.

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Miller, who was backed by the Tea Party Express and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), has railed against federal government spending and entitlements. But for a state that is still largely reliant on federal government dollars, Alaska Democrats argue electing Republican nominee Joe Miller could be disastrous to the Alaskan economy.

"What Joe Miller is doing is putting Alaska at great risk," Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska) told The Hill.

Begich, soon to be the state's senior senator, during the past week has taken a leading role in cheerleading for Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams. McAdams was thrust into the spotlight as the Democratic nominee after Miller's upset. Democrats, assuming Murkowski would easily fend off the challenge, weren't planning on having a competitive race in the state ahead of Miller's win.

But now Begich is making a pitch to Democrats in Washington to back up the McAdams campaign with some financial resources. He has also lent staffers to the McAdams effort, and polls show the race well within striking distance for McAdams.

Begich, the first-term senator who defeated the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) in a close race in 2008, said Miller's stance on earmarks and federal money for Alaska was ironic given he hails from Fairbanks, a city where close to a third of the economy relies on federal government resources.

This past Thursday, Begich announced a $30 million project for a primary-care clinic in the state, which he said wouldn't have been possible without federal government money. "That's the kind of thing Joe Miller has no interest in," Begich said.

Democrats believe it's an issue McAdams can gain some traction with in the general election, given the legacy of Alaska Republicans such as Stevens, who was legendary for securing earmarks and other federal dollars for his home state.

It's a legacy Alaska Republicans appear to still embrace. The website of Alaska's Republican Party features a large photo of Stevens, who died in a plane crash last month, labeling him "The Greatest Alaskan."

Miller has signed his name to a pledge from the Washington, D.C.,-based group Citizens Against Government Waste that promises to "not request any pork-barrel earmark" that is requested by just one member of Congress, not requested by the president, not the subject of congressional hearings or meant to serve only a local or special interest. That language would appear to preclude the vast majority of projects earmarked to the state.

Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said the candidate does support a ban on earmarks but suggested his support for that could hinge on whether the full Congress backs a total ban on the practice. The Hill asked for a clarification on Miller's earmarks stance, but has yet to hear back from the campaign.

Thomas Schatz, president of Citizens Against Government Waste, said he doesn't expect Miller to back down on his stance against earmarks given pressure from the state's political establishment.

"He seems very firm in his commitment to everything he's saying," Schatz said. "And I think this is the right time to take this issue on in Alaska because the overall concern about spending includes earmarks. Voters there understand that this would be a big change and they wanted that change."

Miller's argument echoes that of Palin. Miller said on the campaign trail that he hopes to loosen the federal government's grip on the state. If the federal government allowed Alaska to take advantage of more of its own natural resources, the reasoning goes, it would be less dependent on federal government largesse.

It's clear Miller's backers expect him to stand firm on his stance against earmarking dollars for the state. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who has waded into several Republican Senate primaries this cycle, largely supporting Tea Party-backed candidates over establishment-backed Republicans, endorsed Miller soon after Murkowski conceded Tuesday.

In a fundraising appeal sent from DeMint's Senate Conservatives Fund, the senator called Miller's primary victory "a wake-up call to Republicans that politicians who go to Washington to bring home the bacon aren't wanted — even in a state like Alaska that has gotten so much pork under its recent senators."

"You can do both in a balanced way," insists Begich. "I've supported projects important to Alaska's economy, but I also support the president's deficit commission, and I understand the concern about spending and deficits."

There's also unfinished business on the Republican side: Murkowski has not yet endorsed Miller, and she has yet to officially rule out pursuing a third-party or independent write-in bid this November.

But for Democrats in the state, the primary concern right now might be McAdams himself, who stumbled in an interview earlier last week. Asked whether he supported the recently enacted healthcare law, McAdams declined to offer a response in an interview with Real Clear Politics. He similarly declined to offer positions on the war in Afghanistan and the TARP program.

As for whether Democrats might try to push McAdams aside in favor of a more experienced and well-known Democrat, "there is no possibility of that whatsoever," insisted state Democratic Party Chairwoman Patti Eppler. Begich said the same.

Still, some observers think the party would stand a much better chance against Miller in the fall if it coaxed someone like former Gov. Tony Knowles into the race.

"McAdams would be easy prey for Joe Miller," said Alaska-based pollster Mark Hellenthal. "I'd be shocked if there weren't at least some feelers out there that he step aside."