Washington — Joe Miller is on the Hill, and he doesn’t look too happy about it. As he enters National Review’s office to meet with the staff, his face is glacial, his red-and-white-striped tie an inch askew. His weary blue eyes complete the picture: This is somebody begrudgingly making the Washington rounds. Indeed, he’s just come from an interview with a national television network down the block, and all he has to show for it is a half-empty cup of soda from We, the Pizza — a hip eatery that peddles gourmet pies and “organic” values. As Miller finds a spot at the conference table, his wife, Kathleen, an easygoing schoolteacher and mother of eight, settles into a nearby chair.
Miller, who bears a striking resemblance to Chuck Norris, with his casually slicked-black hair, light beard, and Yoda-like seriousness, shrugs off inquiries about his visit to the hipster slice shop. Heavier things are on his mind. The 43-year-old West Point grad, who won a Bronze Star in the Persian Gulf War, is in the midst of a heated three-way battle for the U.S. Senate in Alaska — he’s facing not only Democrat Scott McAdams, but also current Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, who decided to pursue a write-in candidacy when Miller won the GOP primary — and in the campaign’s final days, he has no time for small talk.
Although he is officially in town to huddle with Republican leaders and raise coin, the Fairbanks attorney’s body language suggests that he’s ready to get out quick. Let’s talk business, he says in a gravelly Midwestern drawl. Miller, a Kansas native who moved to Alaska in 1994 after graduating from Yale Law School — “for the hunting and fishing” — is itching to get back to the Last Frontier. “I like Fairbanks, Alaska, far more than I do Washington,” he says. “I lived on the East Coast for seven years. I know what’s here and I’m not attracted to it, but I recognize that we need to change things.”
Should he win the seat, Miller pledges to be a different kind of Republican. “I’m not going to be a co-opted senator, I can tell you that much,” he begins. “That’s the mandate of Alaskans: to get things done and to change the direction of D.C.”
Nonetheless, he says he’s impressed by the party’s leadership and its potential incoming freshman class. “I think there’s an understanding that the mood of the nation has changed in such a way that there is not going to be toleration of business as usual. If that means shutting down the government, so be it. I mean, we’ll do what it takes,” he says. “I think that we will have enough like-minded people coming into D.C. that we’re actually going to be able to accomplish something.”
But is Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Senate GOP leader, open to the possibility of shutting down the federal government? “There was a comment made at breakfast this morning about shutting down the government, and he reacted in a positive way,” Miller says. “I’m not going to quote him, but I think that he recognizes that that’s on the table.”
A few months ago, Miller was a little-known lawyer on a quixotic quest, and would probably have laughed at the idea of being feted by Beltway Republicans. Then, of course, on a warm, late-August night, everything changed. Out of nowhere — most polls showed him trailing by double digits — Miller rocked the political world by toppling Murkowski, the 53-year-old incumbent, in the primary. Murkowski, who owns one of the state’s most venerable political names — her father appointed her to the seat when he was governor — was left in shock, her campaign flailing.
For Miller, that glorious primary night seems to be a bright, but fading, memory. Since then, he has been faced with a barrage of challenges.
When Murkowski threatened his chances by mounting her write-in campaign, GOP senators, painfully clubby, refused to knock her off of her plum post on the Energy Committee. They swear to Miller that they’re on his side, but to Miller, a man of few words, actions speak louder. “It was disappointing,” he says, flatly.
On the fundraising front, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which funnels national GOP dollars to hot races, has been encouraging, but Miller is hardly drowning in cash. “Our goal is $2 million,” he says. “I think that we’ll probably reach it.” According to the Anchorage Daily News, Murkowski has over $1 million on hand, and McAdams has raised more than $650,000 since the primary.
An aide standing off to the side interrupts. “We sent out an e-mail last evening that brought in $15,000 overnight,” he says, looking eagerly toward Miller. “Good,” Miller says, without looking up. “Fantastic.”
Money, of course, isn’t Miller’s only issue. In recent days, Miller has been called a hypocrite — a frustrating charge for a man whose campaign is framed as a fight against politics as usual. It has been reported that Kathleen, who worked for her husband when he was a part-time federal magistrate, picked up unemployment checks after she left the office. For Miller, who has harshly criticized the federal government’s role in shelling out unemployment benefits, it was an unwelcome news blip.
Other distractions have bubbled up. Miller’s recent comments about the federal minimum wage (he says that it is “not within the scope of the powers of the federal government”) have become cable-news fodder. So too have e-mails from Todd Palin, the husband of former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, one of Miller’s earliest supporters. In the leaked correspondence, Palin, a longtime friend of Miller’s, chides the candidate for not fully embracing a potential presidential run by his wife: “Sarah put her ass on the line for Joe and yet he can’t answer a simple question.”
Todd Palin, for his part, has swatted away at the leak. “There’s no story here except the fact that the press put our personal e-mails online again,” he said in an e-mail to the Weekly Standard. “My family has worked hard in supporting Joe Miller, so when I heard he’d said something less than supportive of my wife’s efforts, I responded. But it turns out we’d gotten our wires crossed and Joe hadn’t said anything like what I’d been told.”
Still, such episodes have caused giggles among members of the Washington press corps, many of whom, as we speak, are tucking into braised-pulled-pork pizzas down the street. To many of them, Miller is nothing more than a Tea Party woodsman — just another tough-talking conservative who got lucky and won a primary a lá Sharron Angle, Rand Paul, and Carl Paladino. Miller, sitting across from me in his neatly creased gray suit, wants to chip away at that calcifying narrative.
The press, Miller says, has consistently misrepresented his campaign. “They try to plead ignorance, but it has been a consistent barrage from virtually every newspaper in our state against our campaign,” he says. “I don’t want to ascribe motivation, but I can tell you that the bias is transparent, and it’s unfortunate.”
It’s a tight race, and he has little room for error. A Rasmussen survey from mid-September had Miller up by 15 points on Murkowski, but she has gained momentum in recent weeks. A CNN poll from late September has Miller leading by just two points over Murkowski, 38 percent to 36 percent, with McAdams at 22 percent.
“We feel pretty secure,” Miller says, reflecting on the polls. Rasmussen, he says, is the “better guide to where we’re at,” since that survey took into account the fact that Murkowski is not actually on the ballot —that voters have to scribble in her long surname by hand.
Miller sees Murkowski as a lost politician, an entrenched senator in search of a way to maintain her grasp on power. “She is between a rock and a hard place now,” he says. “During the primary, she tried to tell the voters that she’s this right-wing conservative, when of course her record doesn’t reflect that. And now she’s made this radical move to the left. She announces her candidacy a couple of weeks ago, and she’s surrounded by Democrats and regional-native corporations [advocacy groups that represent Alaska’s indigenous population]. Her message is reflecting those who are supporting her at this moment.”
Despite Alaska’s tendency in the past to elect pols whose prime focus is collecting and distributing federal pork — think Rep. Don Young or the late senator Ted Stevens — Miller is adamant that the state’s politics are changing for the better. “There is recognition of where this country’s been, and people understand that we’re nearing bankruptcy,” he says. “They understand that the numbers are so enormous that if we don’t do something now, then we’re going to be buried under it.”
“At the end of the day, a state that heavily depends upon federal funding, as far as economic activity goes, is going to have to find something else to create jobs and to keep the state moving forward,” Miller explains. The way forward, he hopes, will lie in Alaska’s abundant fuel resources. “That is the argument that was used at statehood,” Miller says. “We have the ability to create an independent economy through our natural-resource base. But, of course, the federal government, it seems, at every turn, has restricted our ability to use those resources. But those are the only options we have: Our human resources and natural resources. Alaskans understand that they need a fighter to get those things accomplished.”
Miller, who loves to hunt most wild four-legged creatures, including bear, sees himself as that warrior, a man for these times. “Dependency from the federal level is all around us,” he says. “The tax policies, the regulatory policies — they are all designed to kill American business. As you look at it, the only explanation you get is that there is somebody who wants to try to equalize the economies of the world. To me, I just find that incredibly frightening. I had incredible opportunities as a kid, and I want to make sure that my children and their children have those opportunities. And they will not, if we continue in the direction that we’re heading in.”
Republicans are learning that they have to reverse the growth of government, not just slow it as they’ve done in the past, Miller says. “Following that path provides real opportunity for the GOP,” he adds.
In the final two years of President Obama’s term, Miller says, Republicans have the opportunity not only to make gains, but also to begin, with gusto, to roll back the Obama administration’s policies. “We can do things that don’t require his cooperation,” he says. “That’s what it has to be. Defunding agencies in a targeted fashion, particularly where agencies are aggressively acting against economic interests of the country, be it resource development, business, or otherwise. There are things that need to be cut — low-hanging fruit. With Obamacare, we ultimately want to see it repealed, but we are not going to get the two-thirds vote to do that.”
“There is such outrage across the political spectrum,” Miller says, adding that many of the GOP’s potential repeal and reform efforts could gain bipartisan national support. With regards to Obamacare, “we have a good chance of defunding it.” The administration, he adds, “is going to have a real difficult time with their extremist appointments. There are going to be people in the Senate who are going to do everything in their power to prevent folks who don’t like our Constitution from having any type of executive responsibility. There is going to be real concern about the bypassing of the confirmation process in the Senate.”
As a freshman senator, Miller would not sit idly on the backbench, quietly complaining about fiscal policy. The debate over America’s role in the world, he says, is another argument he’d like to join. “I’m dramatically opposed to a feel-good foreign policy,” he says. “This idea of going in and imposing democracy in other countries doesn’t mesh with my understanding of what the common defense is. So, I think that we have to be much more focused on the threats against our nation — that we use that club a little bit more. Nations like Iran need to understand that if they don’t end their WMD programs in response to sanctions, then we will do what we can militarily to take care of that. But that doesn’t mean that we’re going to go in and change their government. I just think that that spreads us too thin. Fiscally we can’t afford it, but at the base of it, I don’t think it’s constitutionally authorized.”
Fighting for a conservative Supreme Court would be another area of interest. Miller, a staunch admirer of Justice Antonin Scalia, says that the GOP needs to beef up its opposition to President Obama’s judicial nominees. If he were to make it to the Senate, Miller would not have a clear preference for committee spots, but he does note that even if he’s not on the Judiciary Committee, he will eagerly step up and scrap with Democrats over the Court. His party’s “lack of backbone” in confirmation fights, he says, is dismaying. “Overall, we need more justices like Scalia and [Clarence] Thomas on the bench, and fewer like [Elena] Kagan.”
Turning back to the campaign, Miller says that his candidacy remains his own endeavor, and despite Murkowski’s push to tag him as a candidate driven by the Tea Party Express, a conservative, California-based activist organization that has aired numerous ads backing Miller, he is his own man, with his own ideas. Miller says that Murkowski’s demonization of the Express is “masterful” but will backfire because she “calls Alaskan voters extreme, and effectively racist, for having supported the Tea Party.”
What about Palin? Will she stump for him as November approaches? “She was very important in the primary,” Miller says, who also credits former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee for giving his campaign a boost. “There are no events planned, no joint appearances, nothing of that nature. I don’t expect her to be campaigning in the general.” Why? “I haven’t talked to her about it,” he says.
“The important factor to keep in mind is that this is a race between Joe Miller and two liberals,” Miller tells me. “The media wants to make this into a race between Palin and Murkowski — a blood feud — but that’s a false portrayal of what’s going on here. It’s also a false portrayal of why I got involved in this race. We don’t want to fall into that trap, either.”
As our interview nears its end, Miller breaks his gaze and looks out the window, out toward the Capitol. “I recognized from the very beginning that this was not going to be easy,” he says. “The culture of Washington is very difficult to change. Even though I haven’t been here, I’ve long been a student of American politics. To think that this is going to change overnight is a fantasy.”
“Boy, you are going to be lonesome,” laughs an NR staffer. “That’s why I’m coming,” Kathleen says. “I’ll have to bandage those wounds occasionally at night.” The small crowd of aides and writers chuckles at the quip. The iconoclast across from me, however, simply flashes a thin grin, cool as ice.
– Robert Costa is a political reporter for National Review.