It’s not looking good for Joe Miller, Sarah Palin’s protégé and GOP Senate nominee in Alaska. The vote count continues, but he trails “write-in” by 10,000 votes and the state division of elections has examined write-in ballots for close to 60 percent of the precincts and nearly 98 percent have been counted for Lisa Murkowski.
In August, Miller pulled the biggest stunner of the election cycle when he upset eight-year incumbent Murkowski in the Senate GOP primary, prompting her to wage a risky write-in bid.
Despite the near-impossible deficit in numbers, Miller is not giving up without a fierce fight, stressing that victory is still possible. The Murkowski team says they are just desperate. When it comes to a future in Last Frontier politics, some Alaska political observers say it is better for him to bow out gracefully now then to hang on until the bitter end.
“I think he risks alienating his base,” says Brian O'Donohue, chairman of the journalism department at the University of Alaska-Fairbanks. “He’s an individual that’s been very critical of activist judges and yet he seems to be very tenaciously exploiting any argument that can be made legally to overturn what appears to be straightforward voter intent.”
Michael Carey, a longtime political watcher and columnist for the Anchorage Daily News, says this could kill any future political career whatsoever and doubts he would be able to raise the funds necessary.
“It seems to be that Miller is getting more and more desperate as time passes and as a practical matter there is no way to win, but he can make a big mess of how he loses and he’s in the process of creating ill will as he proceeds,” Carey said.
“He’s been really, really hurt and if she’s [Murkowski] a U.S. senator, why would she encourage anyone to help him out? She’ll encourage people to put him six feet under,” Carey joked.
“We won’t go forward with a court case if the numbers don’t work out as Joe coming out on top.”
Although Miller staffer Randy DeSoto said he has made no “statements or indications” to him about a political future, the likely next step for Miller would be to challenge Democratic Senator Mark Begich in 2014. He could also run for governor then, but that is less likely, because he would probably be challenging Gov. Sean Parnell, who endorsed him.
The technicalities O’Donohue is referring to are the aggressive challenges to the write-in ballots that the Miller campaign is waging, many of them seem to be perfectly cast, according to photos posted by the Anchorage Daily News. What once was a spelling bee is now a battle over penmanship, although Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumia said voter intent is of the utmost importance and if Murkowski can be pronounced phonetically, then it counts. Miller filed a lawsuit in federal court trying to throw out any misspelled ballots. The state now says he sued in the wrong court and the Miller team says they will file a new lawsuit in state court.
On Thursday, they raised the stakes higher bringing on conservative activist Floyd Brown as an adviser to the Miller campaign. Brown is best known as the creator of the “Willie Horton” ad that derailed Michael Dukakis 1988’s run for president. He’s also the founder of Citizens United, which brought the Supreme Court case that cleared the way for unlimited donations from corporations to some political action committees. He runs a website calling for the impeachment of President Obama. On Thursday he held a press conference in Juneau claiming there had been voter intimidation and fraud during the race.
Not everyone watching the drama believes this bitter battle will affect a possible future political career for Miller. Dave Dittman, a GOP pollster who worked for both Murkowski and Miller during the race, and was one of the only pollsters who correctly predicted a big win for “write-in,” says voters have short memories.
“It’s a funny thing how time affects that. Four years from now, it may be an ancient memory,” Dittman said. “Right now is one thing, but four years from now is something different.”
Dittman added that candidates may be “lined up and stumbling over each other” to challenge Begich and that could help the state’s junior senator.
Both camps have set up legal defense funds. Sarah Palin’s SarahPAC gave $5,000 to help Miller Thursday and the Murkowski team has brought elections attorney Ben Ginsberg to Juneau, known best for his work on Bush v. Gore in 2000.
Ginsberg says the count is an “extremely well-run process” and that the Miller team is “looking for any reason to challenge” ballots.
“It is remarkable and I mean really remarkable when you open up the ballots how proficient a write-in campaign the Murkowski campaign did,” Ginsberg told The Daily Beast. “The numbers are starting to speak pretty loudly. They are at the point where [the Miller camp is]) struck, but they can’t win.”
Ginsberg stressed that Alaska is a state with a precedent of rewarding voter intent “When you argue intent of a voter, you are usually arguing whether the oval gets filled in. Here what the voter is writing is some version of Lisa Murkowski. How can you really doubt the intent if it is a “c” or a “k”?”
The Miller team says their hopes lie with the remaining absentee and questioned ballots to be counted and are willing to go to court on the ballots they have challenged over the past week. But, DeSoto acknowledged that if at that point the numbers aren’t looking close enough, it will be the end.
“We won’t go forward with a court case if the numbers don’t work out as Joe coming out on top. We won’t push forward if it’s a moot point.”
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She 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.