Politics & Government

One thing primaries proved: All politics is local

Kathleen Miller and her husband, U.S. Senate Republican candidate Joe Miller, and supporters walk in downtown Anchorage, Alaska.
Kathleen Miller and her husband, U.S. Senate Republican candidate Joe Miller, and supporters walk in downtown Anchorage, Alaska. Bob Hallinen/Anchorage Daily News/MCT

WASHINGTON — She should have seen this coming.

Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska is on the verge of becoming the seventh member of Congress ousted in a primary this year — caught in a swirl of political forces combining national angst about Washington with local issues and personalities that are defying conventional wisdom.

With almost all the votes counted, Murkowski trailed Republican primary challenger Joe Miller by 1,960 votes out of nearly 90,000 cast. She was hoping for a tide of support in absentee ballots to overcome the surprising lead amassed by Miller, a tea party-backed challenger who had the support of former Gov. Sarah Palin.

Murkowski would be the fourth Republican denied nomination for another term this year.

Anger at incumbents and political insiders isn't universal, however. One top incumbent managed to survive a primary challenge Tuesday — Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona turned back a challenge from former Rep. J.D. Hayworth.

Local campaigns, issues, money and personality have had a huge impact, clouding any effort to draw clear national-trend conclusions from disparate races.

The Alaska race, for example, was colored by a long clash between Palin and the Murkowski family. In addition, a ballot referendum to require parental notification for teen abortions helped draw out tea party backers who favored Miller.

The Republican gubernatorial primary in Florida included a torrent of ads from free-spending millionaire Rick Scott that helped him defeat political veteran Bill McCollum. However, the state's Democratic Senate primary went the other way, when free-spending millionaire Jeff Greene was unable to defeat Rep. Kendrick Meek, the party establishment's choice.

What that means is that Tuesday's primary results don't add up to much of a theme that can foretell general-election results in November, despite widespread efforts by pundits to find one.

"Every time we try to generalize from one of these elections, we fall flat on our faces," said independent analyst Norm Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington.

"Is it an anti-incumbent message? If you want to combine 100,000 voters in Alaska with a small number in Utah, maybe so," he said, referring to the defeat earlier this year of Republican Sen. Robert Bennett of Utah.

"Can you say that millionaires can buy elections? With Rick Scott, you could say yes. With Jeff Greene, you'd have to say no. The one thing I would draw from this: There is a lot of anger out there, but we didn't need the primary elections to tell us that."

Independent analyst Stuart Rothenberg agreed.

"There is an undercurrent of anger, and it's aimed at politics in Washington," said the editor of the Rothenberg Political Report. "It's particularly located on the right side of the spectrum and among most conservative voters."

In a new study this week, Ipsos Public Affairs said it finds an "enthusiasm gap" in which Republicans are much more excited than Democrats or independents about voting in the November elections for control of Congress.

The firm's polls find 79 percent of Republicans enthusiastic about voting in November, versus 60 percent of Democrats and 46 percent of independents.

Primaries may be illustrating that already. In Florida, where there were competitive primaries in both major parties, Republican turnout exceeded Democratic turnout by about 300,000 votes — 1.2 million to 900,000.

In Alaska, Miller challenged Murkowski as not conservative enough. Murkowski voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program — the bank bailout — and has supported abortion rights.

Miller was backed by tea party activists, whose support apparently came in under the radar in the final days, after polls just weeks ago showed Murkowski with a large lead.

He also won the late support of Palin, who's long clashed with the Murkowski family. She defeated Gov. Frank Murkowski, Lisa Murkowski's father, in a Republican primary in 2006.

A key element in Alaska — Murkowski chose not to use her much larger cache of campaign cash to attack Miller. In Arizona, McCain didn't make that mistake.

McCain campaigned hard, and flooded the airwaves with TV ads early slamming Hayworth. As of Aug. 4, he'd outspent Hayworth $8.9 million to $2.6 million, according to the Federal Election Commission.

"Murkowski had an overwhelming financial edge, but she did not go after her opponent," Ornstein said.

"John McCain decided to rip the bark off of J.D. Hayworth. If there's a lesson here, if you've got an opponent, even if that opponent is seriously underfunded, this is a year you don't wait to the last minute. You go after them early and hard."

(Erika Bolstad contributed to this article.)


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