JESSICA BADER: While the primary victories of Rand Paul in Kentucky and Sharron Angle in Nevada have shown that Tea Party-backed right-wing challengers can take out establishment Republicans and make it more difficult for the GOP to win some key Senate races, I don’t think many people expected this phenomenon to find its way to Alaska. For all of the Tea Party’s gnashing of teeth over government spending and the budget deficit, Alaska is a state that’s pretty dependent on federal money and appreciative of lawmakers who bring home the salmon bacon. And while Lisa Murkowski isn’t going to be mistaken for Jim DeMint, she did lead an effort to hamstring the EPA that fell just a few votes short. The one public poll of the Senate primary had Murkowski leading opponent Joe Miller 62-30, and when the Tea Party Express touted a poll showing a closer race, it seemed more than a little sketchy. Yet here we are a week after the primary, with Murkowski behind Miller in the ballots that have been counted so far and dependent on a strong majority of absentee votes to keep her seat.
With Murkowski unable to appear on the ballot as a third-party candidate if Miller holds on (the Libertarian Party has already shot down the possibility of her taking their ballot line), it’s quite possible that the Alaska GOP will have a Senate nominee who is hostile to federal spending and not exactly the biggest fan of Social Security and Medicare. Enter Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka and the Democratic nominee. McAdams would have had little chance against Murkowski in the general election, but the first poll taken after the primary shows a competitive race between him and Miller.
Should Miller prevail over Murkowski, this is absolutely a race that national Democratic groups should prioritize. Alaska is a much less expensive media market than most of the other states with contested Senate races this November (the roughly half a million dollars that the Tea Party Express spent on Miller during the primary race is a big deal by Alaska standards), and only New York and Hawaii have higher rates of union membership. With a relatively small amount of money for ads and organized labor’s boots on the ground organizing GOTV, the state that brought us Sarah Palin (who took out Murkowski’s father in a primary challenge four years ago on the way to the governor’s mansion and endorsed Miller this summer) could also send two Democrats to the Senate. It’s the sort of possibility that makes the average bleeding-heart liberal realize how conservatives must have felt about the special election in Massachusetts this past winter.
HOWARD MEGDAL: I certainly agree with what Jessica said above, but there is a larger point to be made as well, I think. No election is in the bag- these parties owe it to themselves to have the best possible candidates, given the uncertainties of politics.
Take South Carolina, for example. I refuse to believe, with even a little bit of work, that the Democrats couldn’t have done better than Alvin Greene as their candidate. This is not to suggest that Jim DeMint is vulnerable- but who would have suggested such a thing of Lisa Murkowski?
This idea that certain races can or should be punted simply doesn’t make sense. Today’s safe seat is tomorrow’s Scott Brown. Walt Minnick can win as a Democrat in Idaho. Joseph Cao can prevail in Louisiana. Get one of your party’s best candidates into an impossible-to-win seat, and suddenly he will have incumbency at his back.
Hopefully, this Mayor McAdams is a worthy opponent- as Jessica has detailed, this isn’t an insignificant opportunity for the Democrats, who can hold the Senate as long as Republicans don’t run the table on expected battlegrounds. Add in an unexpected loss, and even that sweep won’t be enough to give the chamber to the GOP.
But I am reminded of 2006, when Mark Foley was felled by his unfortunate tendency to write sexually provocative texts to underage pages. Alas, his vanquisher was Tim Mahoney, brought down in 2008 by his own sex scandal.
A better candidate could have held that seat. Elections matter; what both parties need to realize is that every election matters, too.