Tea party, Palin put GOP establishment on the ropes in Florida, Alaska

McClatchy NewspapersAugust 25, 2010 

Insurgents appeared headed for victory in two key political contests in stunning demonstrations of strength from the anti-establishment tea party movement and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin.

Rick Scott, a political outsider who advocated an Arizona-style state crackdown in immigrant-heavy Florida, beat the state's attorney general, Bill McCollum, to win the GOP's gubernatorial nomination Tuesday, while U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Alaska's Republican senator, was fighting for her political life in that state's GOP primary against a Palin-backed opponent.

Scott's win was a witness to his personal wealth -- he spent at least $50 million of it on the campaign -- as well as the thirst for political change in the Republican Party of Florida, which has been rocked by scandal and whose leaders worked to stop him cold.

"This is a man who took on the entire establishment, and what he had was the people,'' said Arlene DiBenigno, Scott's political director. "We didn't have a traditional campaign. We had a campaign of people who were tired of the traditional establishment. They are tired of the same old thing.''

In Alaska, Murkowski was trailing Republican primary challenger Joe Miller, a Fairbanks attorney in what could be one of the biggest election upsets ever in Alaska. With 84 percent of Alaska's precincts reporting around 2 a.m., Miller had 45,188 votes to 42,633 for Murkowski.

Miller credited Palin's support for his lead.

"I'm absolutely certain that was pivotal," he said.

Murkowski on Tuesday night took a shot at Palin, saying that when Palin resigned as governor last summer she said she would use her new national role to help out Alaska.

"I think she's out for her own self-interest. I don't think she's out for Alaska's interest," Murkowski said as she waited at her campaign headquarters for results to come in.

How either winner will do in November was uncertain. In Florida, in what looked like a protest vote against Scott and McCollum, little-known third-party candidate Mike McCalister was receiving one of every 10 votes -- far more than any poll had anticipated. In Alaska, the winner of the Murkowski-Miller race will face Democrat Scott McAdams in the November general election. McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, had a big lead in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate Tuesday night against Frank Vondersaar and Jacob Seth Kern.

Scott, a 57-year-old Naples resident, burst on the Florida scene in April with the first of many advertising blitzes, and cut a distinctive figure on TV with his bald head and piercing blue eyes. But he refused to debate McCollum on live statewide TV, dismissed the ritual of editorial board interviews, and repeatedly refused to make public a deposition he gave in a civil case six days before announcing his campaign.

Scott also deftly and firmly planted a foothold on McCollum's right by aggressively supporting the Arizona law getting tough on illegal immigrants, and he relentlessly hammered McCollum as a "desperate career politician,'' a message that resonated at the polls Tuesday.

With the state party chairman often by McCollum's side, the longtime politician leveraged his relationships with the incoming House and Senate leaders, who dumped millions into a smear campaign that revolved around a record $1.7 billion Medicare fraud fine ultimately paid out by the Columbia/HCA hospital chain that Scott founded.

In the end, though, Scott's campaign said he was winning because he successfully branded himself as the "jobs'' candidate -- the man whose campaign had the slogan ``Let's Get to Work.'' They say that message will resonate in the general election just as it did Tuesday night in the primary.

Scott will face Democrat Alex Sink and independent Lawton "Bud'' Chiles in November. Sink easily defeated little-known challenger Brian Moore in the Democratic primary.

Scott is the opponent Democrats want in November. The race for the governor's mansion has major national implications, with both parties eager to claim power heading into 2012, when all congressional and legislative district lines are redrawn and the next presidential election is held.

But Scott's victory is a shock to the state's political system, and threatens to tear apart the fabric of the Republican Party already reeling from the indictment of former party chairman Jim Greer and defection of a once-immensely popular governor, Charlie Crist.

On Election Day, Scott was on the radio bluntly criticizing John Thrasher, a state senator and state party chairman who is a McCollum supporter. With the level of invective so high in recent weeks, it won't be easy for Republicans to mend fences, and the general election is only 70 days away.

Voting was light across much of the state Tuesday, where steady rainfall and the incessant drumbeat of negative ads likely combined to tamp down turnout. But some voters were eager to embrace Scott's message of change.

"He's a fresh start,'' said Kenneth Sprayberry, 73, a retired BellSouth manager who voted for Scott in Pompano Beach. ``McCollum has been there -- he has done some things I don't agree with, switching back and forth on immigration laws. He's been there long enough.''

McCollum's defeat likely put an end to a venerable career in Florida politics that included 10 terms in Congress. It was his third statewide defeat, a setback that most political experts say cannot be overcome. After serving for 20 years in Congress, McCollum lost U.S. Senate races in 2000 and 2004 before bouncing back to win the attorney general's post in 2006.

In Alaska, Miller was triumphant, making an entrance to election central at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage on Tuesday night, surrounded by loudly cheering supporters with red-white-and-blue balloons.

"We did it!" one shouted.

Murkowski didn't come to election central, the traditional celebratory venue for Alaska candidates. She stayed in her campaign headquarters in Midtown Anchorage to watch the returns come in.

Her campaign spokesman, Steve Wackowski, was holding out hope that she would benefit from support in rural and coastal areas of the state that hadn't yet reported.

"We knew the race was going to be tight. The rural areas have yet to come in and we know Sen. Murkowski is going to be very strong in the rural areas."

The final results of the race won't be known for over a week. The Alaska Division of Elections said over 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and as of Monday night 7,600 had been returned. The first count of absentees will be next Tuesday and there will be two subsequent counts as the absentee votes trickle in on Sept. 3 and on Sept. 8.

Palin and the Tea Party Express made a big push to convince Alaskans to dump Murkowski for Miller. Polls had shown Murkowski with a big lead just three weeks ago. But Miller supporters had thought it was narrowing and were expressing confidence earlier in the day Tuesday that they would be pulling off an upset.

This was the first test of Palin's influence on Alaska politics since she resigned as governor last summer, and the first sign of how influential the tea party movement can be in shaping political races in the state.

There was a lot more going on in this race than the Tea Party and Palin, though. Anti-Palin Alaska Republicans were arguing that voters should hold their nose and vote for Miller in spite of the endorsement of the former governor. Elements of Alaska's right wing have always disliked Murkowski.

Murkowski's pro-choice stance is a particularly sore point, one that Miller supporters hammered her on.

Tuesday's primary election also included Ballot Measure 2, which would require parents to be notified before their teens age 17 and younger received an abortion. Miller said he thinks that brought out voters who supported him over Murkowski, even though she supported the ballot measure as well.

"The Prop. 2 supporters were our supporters, largely. ... Frankly I think the pro-life vote was important," Miller said on Tuesday night.

Murkowski was a moderate state legislator when she was appointed by her father, Frank Murkowski, in 2002 to the U.S. Senate seat he was giving up to become governor.

The theme of a royal dynasty was also a part of the Miller campaign against her.

Murkowski told voters that her seniority and position in the Senate is good for Alaska. She's a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and the most senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski described Ted Stevens as her Senate mentor. She was much a part of the huge outpouring of reverence for Stevens in Alaska after he died in a plane crash earlier this month.

Stevens made radio and television ads for Murkowski just about a week before his death. The Murkowski campaign had also planned print advertising featuring Stevens' support. But the planned ad campaign with Stevens never ran. The Murkowski campaign dropped it after Stevens's death.

"It was the respectful thing to do," Murkowski said.

Miller was running on a platform that's never before been a winning strategy for an Alaskan running for Congress. He promised to help choke federal spending rather than deliver the dollars back home.

Miller said his message resonated with Alaska voters.

"I think that they see the entitlement state, the federal government, growing too large. They understand because they have to balance their checkbooks," Miller said.

The California-based Tea Party Express reported spending $600,000 on behalf of Miller with ads that labeled Murkowski a liberal who is prone to voting with the Democrats.

Voters were getting robocalls until the last minute from Palin, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and former Alaska Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, saying the country is in crisis and Miller is the man to straighten it out. Those calls were financed by Miller, who raised $180,000 for his campaign.

Miller leaned heavily on his resume: a West Point and Yale law school graduate who won a Bronze star in the first Gulf War and was a magistrate. He's currently an attorney in Fairbanks and had almost no statewide name recognition until Palin, whose husband is a friend of Miller's, got on board his candidacy and attracted the attention of the national Tea Party Express.

Murkowski also spent heavily, sinking well over $1.4 million into the race. She ran ads touting her conservative bona fides and bashing the Obama administration. Murkowski called Miller a liar, saying his insistence that she didn't want to repeal the federal health care reform act ignored the fact she's participated in Congressional efforts to do so.

(This story consists of reporting by Steve Bousquet and Marc Caputo of the Miami Herald/St. Petersburg Times Tallahassee Bureau and Sean Cockerham and Kyle Hopkins of the Anchorage Daily News.)

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