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08.25.10

Palin's New Man in Alaska

With Joe Miller's upset of Republican Lisa Murkowski all but certain, Shushannah Walshe investigates how he decided to challenge one of the state's top political families—starting at Palin's resignation.

Sarah Palin’s endorsed candidate Joe Miller is inching towards victory in the Alaska senate race against incumbent, Lisa Murkowski. With every precinct reporting he is up 1,668 votes. But, before Palin even endorsed him, she had a peripheral role in his decision to even jump in the race. At her resignation speech last July when she officially stepped down as Governor of Alaska and handed over the reigns to her number two, Sean Parnell, Miller was first approached about the potential of taking on Murkowski.

At the event, Miller was thinking about running for Lt. Governor and mulled it over with two Alaskan Republican operatives, Dirk Moffatt and Matt Johnson. Moffatt was the chief of staff to Republican State Representative and Palin supporter, Bob Lynn, and he first suggested to Miller to set his sights higher.

“Her endorsement helped, but we didn’t really capitalize on that or play it up as much as we should.” Moffatt said.

“He was originally looking at Lieutenant Governor and I asked if he had thought about running for Senate against Lisa Murkowski. Our Lieutenant Governor Campbell was pretty well liked and they are both conservative so there was nothing to run against.”

He told Miller at the Fairbanks event, “There is more of a contrast to Lisa Murkowski, because she’s a liberal Republican and you’re a conservative.”

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According to Moffatt, Miller then began polling and he found that while it was “not impossible it also wasn’t probable.”

“It wasn’t a slam dunk, but it was possible.”

At the time Miller, a Yale-educated lawyer, combat veteran, and former judge from Fairbanks, was an unknown political entity in Alaska, though he did have a failed run in 2004 for a seat in the State Legislature. He came to the state 16 years ago as part of a "life-long dream" according to spokesperson Randy DeSoto.

The polls Miller commissioned did not mention him by name and instead asked if there were a more conservative candidate that ran against Lisa Murkowski would they want that person to run. Moffatt says although Miller was cautious about the results, that’s when he decided to take on Murkowski. But there was one more person Miller had to convince: his wife Kathy who at first did not want Miller to get into the race. When she gave the green light for the run he made his final decision, although he did not formally announce until April.

Miller’s lead is a stunner both here and in the rest of the country, but at Miller’s party at the Snowgoose Restaurant in Anchorage on Election Night no one was surprised it was such a nail biter. The day after Moffatt was confident, but cautious.

“We have a pretty good lead, but who knows where the absentees are going to go,” Moffatt said. “I still am not going to be happy until it’s official and Lisa Murkowski concedes. There’s always a chance that the votes can swing the other way.”

Moffatt, who knows Palin from working in Juneau and is a supporter, says her endorsement definitely helped their insurgent campaign and he wanted her to play a larger role, adding that he thinks the campaign should have “used her a lot more.”

Miller was also backed by Mike Huckabee and the Tea Party Express, which raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Miller, almost all of which went to media buys.

“Her endorsement helped, but we didn’t really capitalize on that or play it up as much as we should.” Moffatt said. “I think with the rank and file Republicans, she’s still really popular even if she’s not popular with the establishment types here.”

Moffatt didn’t know why Palin’s involvement was limited to Facebook postings and the robo-calls saying he wasn’t privy to those conversations.

Shushannah Walshe is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.