Joe Miller went rogue long before Sarah Palin. Miller, 43, grew up in Kansas, but came to Alaska “by choice” in 1994, after taking a degree from Yale Law School and picking up a Bronze Star in Desert Storm. After a childhood of hunting and fishing, “the can-do attitude, the rough living, the great outdoors — it had a magnetizing pull,” he says. Yet now, instead of trudging through the woods near his Fairbanks home, rifle in hand, Miller is gunning for a new challenge: the U.S. Senate.
In his way stands Sen. Lisa Murkowski, a seven-year incumbent, who is up in the polls — by more than 30 points in the latest public survey — and up at the bank, with millions ready to be shelled out as the August 24 GOP Senate primary approaches. Miller, a former judicial officer with a scruffy beard, shrugs off the poll numbers and the cash gap. “The momentum is on our side,” he says. “Senator Murkowski knows that she is vulnerable.”
Miller points to Murkowski’s position on repealing Obamacare as a case in point. Soon after the health-care bill passed in March, Murkowski went on local television and said that repeal “is not the answer.” By late June, after being hammered by Miller, Murkowski took to the Senate floor to argue the opposite. Such a flip, Miller says, is typical of the low-key incumbent. “It is kind of humorous to see how she is moving to the right,” he laughs. “Her shift is so radical, you almost have to smile.”
On other fronts — Miller would like to ax the Department of Education and criticizes global warming as “dubious science” — he outflanks Murkowski. Indeed, like many conservative insurgents this season, Miller has used a couple of key issues and broad, anti-Washington themes to gain traction. Miller’s stump speech revolves around energy — he chastises Murkowski for, at one time, being open to a cap-and-trade bill — and the senator’s support for the 2008 bank bailouts. But it is Murkowski’s political persona, he says, that irks him more than any one vote. “She is a statist,” he sighs. “She has that bureaucratic mindset that sees the central government as the answer to everything.”
If he wins, Miller, along with Senate hopefuls Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada, would form part of a new conservative nucleus in the upper chamber. Like that pair, “I align with Sen. Jim DeMint and Sen. Tom Coburn, both of whom are phenomenal voices for reform,” Miller says.
Getting a chance to do that, of course, will not be easy, with every blogger and operative looking to trip up a tea-partier. Earlier this month, Miller was shaken — in the national press, at least — by a viral video showing his supporters toting guns during a parade. Miller appeared on national news programs to defend the clip, reassuring East Coast reporters that in the 49th state, “it is not unusual to walk into Wal-Mart, or to walk into a gas station, and see people carrying guns.”
Since then, Miller has embraced the buzz. A little devil-may-care fun, he reckons, coupled with serious policy positions, is crucial to winning over Alaskans. “This is more of a libertarian state,” Miller explains. “Some folks characterize themselves as tea partiers, others don’t. But the broad themes of the movement are shared almost universally in this state, which is mainly to yank the government back to its constitutional limits.”
One person who has readily identified with Miller’s message is Palin, the high-flying former governor, who endorsed him in June, via a glowing, 735-word essay on Facebook. “Contested primaries are so good for America’s political process,” Palin wrote. “Competition makes everyone work harder, be more efficient, debate clearer, and produce more. So, Alaskans should be thrilled that Joe Miller jumped in the GOP race and is ready, willing, and able to serve us as our next United States Senator.”
Miller’s and Palin’s paths have aligned before. Two years ago, Miller helped Palin try to oust the state GOP chairman. Though they were unsuccessful, the pair bonded. “He has fought alongside me and others to help clean up the Republican Party here in Alaska by bringing in new leadership, new ideas, and commitment to putting government back on the side of the people, not any political machine,” Palin noted in her endorsement. Palin’s husband, Todd, has also become a Miller ally. The mama-grizzly boost helped put him on the map.
The recent support that has poured in from conservatives nationwide has also been beneficial. The Tea Party Express, a grassroots organizing group that helped catapult Angle to a final-hour primary win, has stepped in to help him organize his far-flung network of volunteers. Others, like RedState’s Erick Erickson, Alaska Right to Life, and talk-radio stars Mark Levin and Laura Ingraham, have also been supportive. It all has been instrumental in helping this second-time candidate — Miller ran unsuccessfully for a state house seat in 2004 — put a scare into the Murkowski machine.
In spite of that previous campaign, Miller says politics is a relatively recent pursuit for him. In 1997, just three years after moving to Alaska to work in private practice, Miller was appointed, at age 30, a state magistrate. A few years later, he was appointed to serve on the state district court and, shortly thereafter, to serve as a U.S. magistrate in Fairbanks; he did these jobs simultaneously. He also spent some time working for a private firm, and as an assistant attorney for his local municipality.
But the political bug bit him in 2004, when Miller won a GOP primary before losing the general election to a longtime Democratic incumbent. Since then, “I have been very active,” he says. Not only did he support Palin’s intraparty maneuvering in 2008, but he did so in 2006, too, backing the former Wasilla mayor as she challenged Gov. Frank Murkowski, the senator’s father, in the GOP gubernatorial primary, which Palin won. Then, as now, Lisa Murkowski was criticized as an insider — a classic example of nepotism — since her father had tapped her for the Senate after he himself left the chamber to become governor in 2002.
“There is not a lot of affinity out there for the Murkowski name,” Miller says. “Her father lost his reelection bid by a wide margin. Even Lisa’s signage reflects the reality: ‘Murkowski’ is in small letters, while ‘Lisa’ is huge.” While he says that this “election is about Washington,” Miller acknowledges that Murkowski’s loaded political surname will play a part. That said, Palin’s support also comes with strings. A recent poll by Ivan Moore Research found her to be seen favorably by just 41 percent of Alaska voters, with 47 percent seeing her in a negative light. That is, National Journal observes, “a stark change for someone who once enjoyed record levels of approval as governor.”
So is a late-summer upset in the works? Just look at what happened to Sen. Bob Bennett, Miller says, pointing to Utah’s moderate Republican senator, thrown out by conservatives at a party convention earlier this year. “We have the same approach here in Alaska,” he says. “The only way to fix the crisis of leadership is by removing incumbents. I hear that sentiment on the streets as I travel around the state.” Miller says that in early August, when the two meet for a series of debates, he will be ready to tangle.
As he once ventured to Alaska with little more than a job offer and pluck, Miller is itching for a chance to go to the Capitol as someone “who is not a professional politician.” His background, he says, is more than enough. “I’m a combat veteran, went to West Point and law school, and got a master’s degree in economics, which is an important tool these days. Along with common sense, that’s all I need.”
– Robert Costa is the William F. Buckley Jr. Fellow at the National Review Institute.