The last major Republican primary in a state with a competitive Senate race this fall is over. Last night in Alaska, the choice of both establishment Republican Karl Rove and the free-market Club for Growth won over a tea-party-backed candidate — but not by much. With that result comes some lessons for the future about Democratic interference in GOP primaries. The race against Democratic senator Mark Begich this fall will be close and very hard fought — and could determine overall control of the Senate.
Former state attorney general Dan Sullivan won 40 percent of the vote to defeat Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller (32 percent) and Lieutenant. Governor Mead Treadwell (25 percent). The result was much closer than polls had showed, with Miller winning almost twice as high a percentage of the vote as expected. Miller had a similar surge in 2010 when he won a narrow victory over U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski but went on to lose to her as a write-in that fall. Since then he has remained politically active, and won the endorsement of Sarah Palin in this year’s race after he joined her in calling for President Obama’s impeachment.
Miller’s grassroots support gave him a late surge against Sullivan. But one of the biggest drags on the frontrunner was a series of brutal TV ad attacks against him by Put Alaska First, a Democratic super PAC allied with Senator Begich. It spent $4 million in a small state on ads accusing Sullivan of undermining hunting and fishing rights while serving as the state’s natural-resources commissioner. Then late in the campaign, Put Alaska First ran ads highlighting Miller’s pro-life stands along with his support for impeaching Obama.
“Why else would you be telling Republican primary voters that he wants to impeach President Obama?” GOP strategist Taylor Bickford told the Anchorage Daily News, describing Put Alaska First’s strategy as “very clearly trying to move Sullivan and Treadwell votes over to Joe Miller.”
“They’ve essentially couched positive messages in ads that look and feel like attacks,” he said. The tactic is very similar to what allies of Senator Claire McCaskill did in 2012 in Missouri, when they ran ads attacking Representative Todd Akin as an extreme conservative. He wound up winning the GOP primary thanks to conservative votes but his loose tongue and comments on “legitimate rape” quickly cost him the election. Senator Harry Reid’s allies did much the same thing in Nevada in 2012, resulting in the primary victory of Sharron Angle, who then went on to lose to Reid in the general election.
Republicans are going to have to anticipate further attempts by liberals to intervene in their primaries and influence the result. Sullivan himself is unfazed by the effort and promises to beat Begich in November. “The fact that they attacked me so early just showed they feared me the most,” he told reporters.