Write-in history looks good for Murkowski

Posted: Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Pointing to the past failures of write-in candidates, few pundits give Lisa Murkowski much of a chance of winning back her U.S. Senate seat. However, history is a lot more than statistics and results. Recalling that past is nothing more than the party loyal warning others not to waste their vote. But it's also a relatively passive argument next to the wave of mud we can expect in a three-way race.

First of all, not all the past write-in candidacies are comparable to Murkowski's bid. Robin Taylor's run for governor in 1998 began in the last week of the race, much too late to even call it a campaign. Nick Begich Jr. and Wayne Ross also ran as write-ins that year, but they were more like Sid Hill, this year's unknown, without funds to mount a serious effort.

Then there's Walter Hickel, who tried it twice after losing close primary elections in the race for governor. In 1986 he won an embarrassingly low 3 percent. But in 1978 he finished second, 16,000 votes behind Jay Hammond. Second place may on the losing side of history, but it doesn't mean his candidacy wasn't viable.

Hickel had been elected governor in 1968, so like Murkowski, his name was well known across the state. He also had enough funds to make that campaign reasonably competitive. Compared to today though, the means to get his message to Alaskans was far more difficult. He had to rely on the state-funded RATNET satellite television to reach voters in rural communities. And in 1978 the Internet wasn't even a word.

It's an unfortunate reality advertising plays such an important role in our elections. It's the black hole in our otherwise free elections. It not only sucks campaign coffers dry, desperate candidates often resort to negative ads that far too often bury the truth about their opponent under a mountain of mud. Campaign strategists know these ads work. They've used them for years. Only now we may never know who is really behind them.

Last January, in Citizens United v. the Federal Election Commission, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled campaign contributions are protected by the First Amendment. Large corporations can now legally dip deep into their huge bank accounts to support or oppose any candidate. While they have to disclose the contributions given directly to candidates, much of their money will likely wind up in non-profit political action committees where there is no legal requirement for their donations to be revealed.

Former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor warned us that this decision means the way money unjustly influences our elections "might get considerably worse and quite soon." Money talks, and there is no shortage of people in the advertising business willing to create slimy campaign ads. With three serious contenders for the senate, our airwaves and cyberspace are more likely than ever to be crackling with substance-less trash talk that pretends to be in the interest of Alaskan voters.

Consider the attack ad by Let Freedom Ring, a Delaware-based political action committee that tastelessly portrayed Murkowski as crying like a spoiled child about losing the primary. "It's mine, it's mine. Daddy gave it to me. Mine, mine, mine" the ad's narrator whines.

Who pays for ads like this? We can't be sure, but there's evidence that Koch Industries has helped fund other tea party supporting PACs. The Koch brothers aren't Alaskan or Main Street America. Forbes ranks them the second largest private company in the country.

Of course, Murkowski has her share of corporate backing. And there's nothing stopping other groups supporting Democrat Scott McAdams from attacking the GOP in general. We may have become accustomed to this trash at every election, but the problem is much worse when we don't know who is trying to buy our votes.

This year's three-way senate race is bound to be uglier than normal. Yet maybe Alaskans can send a message to both parties and to America's giant corporations. We don't have to know who is behind these ads to punish the candidate that they support. We'd have to do more work in studying the issues and candidates' positions, but that could be a defining history that would benefit all Alaskans.

• Moniak is a Juneau resident



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