U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, is in a heated battle with Joe Miller for the Republican nomination in today's primary. The race has become a test of the influence of the Tea Party Express, one of many groups within the Tea Party movement, which has backed Miller and spent $550,000 on campaign ads attacking Murkowski as being too liberal. Sarah Palin also supports Miller, calling him a common sense conservative.
Most political observers expect Murkowski to beat Miller in the primary and then easily win the general election in November. But at least one poll shows the Republican race has tightened in the last month. Pollster Ivan Moore conducted a survey in early July in which likely voters were asked their impressions of the two Republican candidates. 53 percent had a favorable opinion of Murkowski while 54 percent didn't even know who Joe Miller was. However, in a Tea Party Express commissioned R.T. Nielson poll several weeks later, Miller trailed Murkowski by 12 percent, 47 percent to 35 percent.
Clearly the barrage of advertising has helped with name recognition for the Fairbanks lawyer. Lisa Murkowski may still be carrying some baggage from the way she got to the Senate. Her father, then-Governor Frank Murkowski, appointed her in a move that angered many. Sarah Palin rode that outrage in her 2006 campaign for governor, attacking the "Old Boys Network" and pulling off the stunning upset of Frank Murkowski in the Republican primary that year. But now Palin is perhaps just as polarizing of a figure in Alaska as the man she defeated four years ago, leaving an open question as to what effect her endorsement of Miller will have. A recent poll found Alaska voters are split on Palin - 46 percent had a negative opinion while 41 percent are positive.
As for the issues in the Senate race, Joe Miller has tried to paint Lisa Murkowski as being closely aligned with the Obama Administration. One heavily aired campaign ad attacked Murkowski for "not opposing Obamacare." But in fact, Murkowski had not only voted against the health care reform bill, but she voted later to repeal it.
Miller has positioned himself as the candidate who is for smaller government. While the theme resonates with many in this largely Republican and Independent state, there is a clear downside to the argument in the Last Frontier state. Alaska receives far more money per capita in federal spending than any other state. It is wildly dependent on defense spending, federal research and transportation projects. The late senator Ted Stevens was famous for "bringing home the bacon".
If Murkowski is defeated, Alaska would be left with two senators with a combined two years experience in Congress, no seniority, and no clout. Miller's argument has been that business as usual has to change in Washington D.C., while Murkowski, much like her close friend Ted Stevens, says she's needed in Congress to fight for Alaska's interests.
Voters are speaking today and we should know the results this evening.