ANCHORAGE — Tea party conservatives hope to make Republican primary magic again Tuesday, with a victory by Joe Miller in Alaska’s U.S. Senate race.
The election marks the end of a national primary season dominated by the battle between establishment Republicans and those farther to the right. The major candidates GOP voters can choose from are tea party firebrand Miller; Alaska political veteran Mead Treadwell; and Dan Sullivan, the presumed front-runner and a candidate backed by national GOP powerbrokers.
The other high-profile question on the ballot is a referendum to overturn the state’s new oil production tax. Supporters of the new system see the tax cuts as a way to boost investment and production, while critics deem them a giveaway to oil companies. Voters also will narrow fields in races for U.S. House, governor and lieutenant governor.
Miller has been considered by many to be a wild card and long shot in the Senate race, but he has exuded confidence in the lead-up to Tuesday’s primary. His campaign smacked of that in 2010, when he upset Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the GOP primary, enjoying a network of loyal supporters and attention from conservative talk radio hosts. He recently added the endorsements of Sarah Palin and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to a list that includes anti-abortion and tea-party-style groups.
Tea Party Express, which ran ads on his behalf in 2010, sat out this time around. The chief strategist for the group has said it does not see a “dramatic” philosophical difference between the candidates this year.
“I’m going to win, with God’s help and the people’s help, let’s put it that way,” Miller told The Associated Press. “I am convinced the people of this state are going to make the right decision.”
If he doesn’t prevail, he has vowed to support either Treadwell, who is Alaska’s lieutenant governor, or Sullivan in the general election. That announcement last week came after Miller refused for months to make such a commitment. It also spoke to the state GOP’s desire to unite to defeat first-term Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in November and to avoid a repeat of the divisive 2010 race. While Miller was the GOP nominee, Murkowski mounted an historic general-election write-in campaign to keep her job.
Republicans see Alaska as key to their efforts to wrest back control of the Senate. They need to pick up six Senate seats to do that.
Treadwell has cast himself as the “electable” conservative, in contrast with Miller, whose politics spooked more mainstream Republicans in 2010. Treadwell also has played up his decades-long ties to the state, as opposed to Sullivan, whose roots here date to the 1990s. He believes his knowledge of Alaska issues, from fisheries to aviation, make him the strongest candidate to challenge Begich. His endorsements include four-time Iditarod champ Martin Buser and astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
“For me, the passion he has for Alaska, I really love seeing that when he talks,” said Melehoko Maake, a supporter from Juneau.
Treadwell, who hasn’t raised near the kind of money that Sullivan has and whose super PAC has been inactive, said he has been assured the money would be there should he win the primary.
Sullivan spent much of the last few days of the race traveling the state by RV with his family. The candidate, who is backed by Karl Rove and other prominent Republicans, bore the brunt of negative attacks by a pro-Begich super PAC for months, helping create an opening for his Republican rivals. But his campaign has said its best response has been sending Sullivan, a former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner, to meet Alaskans one on one. And his campaign felt confident of his chance for success Tuesday.
“His resume is the best of the three. And he has the best chance of all to put the seat in Republican hands,” said Jerry Hood, a Sullivan supporter and campaign manager for Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young.