Watch CBS News

How Alaska's Joe Miller Managed Stunning Upset over Lisa Murkowski


Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski conceded last night to her Republican primary challenger Joe Miller in one of the most surprising and significant upsets of the midterm elections so far.

Miller's victory defied the all the odds and the conventional wisdom that a well-known, powerful incumbent like Murkowski should have no problem securing her party's nomination. Murkowski, however, failed to put her resources to use and seemingly underestimated the effectiveness of the Tea Party, which helped Miller portray the senator as too liberal for the state.

Murkowski's defeat makes her the third sitting senator this year to fail to even win a primary. These losses, plus the number of senators retiring, means at least 15 new members will join the Senate next year. Since the Constitution was amended to allow for the direct election of senators, the record number of freshmen to join the Senate at once is 20, according to Politico.

However, the surprising Alaska primary hardly marks a trend, contend some political observers like Prof. Larry Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia.

Tossing out incumbent senators is certainly not a typical move -- since 1982, the re-election rate for senate incumbents has been between 75 percent and 96 percent during every two-year every election cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. This year is no different -- as of now, 339 incumbent members of the House and Senate have been successfully re-nominated this year, with only 7 defeated, according to Sabato. That's a 98 percent re-nomination rate.

A number of Democratic incumbents, particularly in the House, are expected to lose this November, Sabato told the Hotsheet, making this an anti-Democrat year rather than an anti-incumbent year.

So what happened in Alaska?

"Murkowski could have beaten Miller handily," Sabato said. "Murkowski has no one to blame but herself. Incredibly, she didn't take Miller seriously and refused to spend her gobs of money. She could have swamped Miller, and this election wouldn't even have been close."

Lisa Murkowski Concedes Alaska Primary Race
Alaska Libertarian Party Rejects Possible Murkowski Bid
Palin's Support May Topple Murkowski in Alaska Special Report: Campaign 2010

Indeed, the Center for Responsive Politics reports that Murkowski raised more than 12 times what Miller raised in this election. The Center also reports she spent more than 10 times what her opponent spent. However, the Alaska Dispatch reports that Murkowski had more than $1.8 million left in her campaign treasury as of Aug. 4, and no debt.

Murkowski could have used her money to respond to attacks from Miller's supporters, or go on the offensive against the challenger. However, the Dispatch reports, Murkowski refused to go negative even as the Tea Party Express launched ads attacking Murkowski as an entrenched political insider who too often conceded to Democrats.

The Tea Party Express spent $550,000 to help Miller, dumping $314,000 into mostly television and radio ads in just the last week before the Aug. 24 primary. Support from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin also boosted Miller's Tea Party credentials; Palin helped promote a Tea Party express "money bomb" for Miller.

One Tea Party Express ad chided that "the Senate seat currently being occupied by Lisa Murkowski doesn't belong to Wall Street lobbyists or the Murkowski family." Another ad blasted Murkowski as too "liberal" because she has voted with Democrats hundreds of times.

Murkowski was certainly not the staunch, hardcore conservative conservative senator that Miller will likely prove to be if he wins the general election.

Alaska has lost a senator with a leadership position, and now the Senate has even less chance of passing an energy bill. As ranking Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, she made some efforts to add conservative ideas to the Democrats' debate over climate change legislation, an issue that some contend contributed to her defeat.

Should he win this November, Miller will be one of a fair number of recruits for an unofficial Senate Tea Party caucus, Sabato said.

Democrats, meanwhile, are hoping they may now chance, however small, of winning a second Senate seat in Alaska with little-known candidate Scott McAdams However, a National Republican Senatorial Committee poll released Monday showed Miller with a 16-point lead over McAdams.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.