WASHINGTON — Wasting no time with a potential Republican upset in what had been a previously ungettable U.S. Senate seat, national Democrats on Wednesday made their move in Alaska.
Democrats don't yet know officially whether their new candidate, Scott McAdams of Sitka, will face lawyer Joe Miller of Fairbanks. Miller, backed by the Tea Party Express, continues to hold a lead in the Republican primary over incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski as absentee ballots are counted. Murkowski, in office since 2002, has not conceded, but trails by 1,668 votes, with all the precincts counted.
Already, though, the national party is working to define Miller -- the likely Republican nominee -- as an extreme candidate with views not held by mainstream Alaskans. By mid-afternoon the day after the election, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had labeled Miller in an e-mail blast as a "dangerous enemy to middle-class Alaskans."
The DSCC tore into the positions Miller has espoused in interviews, including his criticism of federal unemployment insurance and his call to phase out Medicare.
"Joe Miller seems more intent on imposing a strict social doctrine to please his out-of-state tea party backers but would leave the people of his state high and dry," the DSCC wrote. "Alaskans deserve a senator who will stick up for them in the United States Senate."
ADVERTISEMENT National party officials didn't go as far as to say that senator would be McAdams, who, like many Alaskans, on Wednesday woke up to a much different general election than what had been generally anticipated. But many of the emerging Republican candidates "hold extreme beliefs that are far outside the mainstream," said Deirdre Murphy of the DSCC. And that has one effect, she said: Creating wider targets that make races more competitive for Democrats, even in Alaska.
Meanwhile, their GOP colleagues at the NRSC were quick to say they have no intention of letting go of the seat -- regardless of whether it's Murkowski or Miller on the ballot. The head of the committee, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, pledged to fight for it. "This seat will remain in Republican hands this November," he said.
But McAdams has the full support of Democrat Mark Begich, who two years ago pulled off his own successful upset of a Republican senator, Ted Stevens. Begich on Wednesday had this to say of McAdams: "I like what I see."
"Welcome to Alaskan politics, anything can happen, everything's viable," Begich said. "It doesn't take a lot of money, but it takes someone who is committed and hard working and can run a campaign. So I tell people and I've been telling people that this race shouldn't be discounted out and has potential."
Until the landscape of the election shifted Tuesday night, McAdams was seen as little more than a Democratic placeholder to keep Murkowski from what was expected to be an unimpeded path back to the Senate seat she has held since 2002.
Originally, both the National Republican Senatorial Committee and its counterpart, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, had no intention of jumping into the Murkowski race.
For Republicans, it was because they had 17 other seats to defend and Murkowski had her own sizeable campaign war chest as well as what was thought to be a lead in the polls.
And Democrats, who are defending 19 seats -- including that of Majority Leader Harry Reid -- also weren't considering Alaska until now. In fact, Alaska was such a low priority Senate target that in an appearance Wednesday on the ABC News online political program "TopLine," Brad Woodhouse of the Democratic National Committee couldn't recall McAdams' name.
Given all that, Alaska pollster David Dittman, who generally works for Republicans, said Wednesday it wouldn't surprise him if Democrats looked for another candidate to replace McAdams.
"Swapping candidates is certainly something that's been done before," he said, pointing to how former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., was appointed to take the place on the ballot of scandal-tainted incumbent Robert Torricelli. "And when something as essential as a Senate seat is involved, anything's on the table."
But there's no indication McAdams will be shoved aside to make way for a higher-profile Democrat. When asked about it Wednesday at a press conference, McAdams said no one has suggested it and reacted as though the possibility hadn't occurred to him.
He invited people who supported Murkowski to consider joining his campaign. It's a rejection of Miller's tea party-tinged message, McAdams said.
"I believe we are the moderate, rational, practical campaign, not the campaign of extreme measures and 19th century ideology," McAdams said. "Not only do they say no to progress in the form of things like developing Alaska through congressionally vetted appropriations, but they also say no to social progress. ... The Tea Party has been clear in rejecting the Department of Education, the Department of Energy and other great progress our society has made."
Begich wouldn't say who he had been speaking to at the national level to encourage their support of a Democratic Senate candidate in Alaska. But he did say that since his 2008 win, "they realized that we actually knew what we were talking about up here."
"I'm just talking to who whoever wants to listen," Begich said. "If they believe in Alaska's future, I'm happy to tell them what I think."