A RINO in name only

Back in June, Sarah Palin made the interesting decision to endorse Joe Miller who is running against incumbent Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. A year earlier, Palin had contributed to Murkowski’s campaign.
After she endorsed Miller, Palin explained that she had previously contributed to Murkowski campaign in “an attempt to reassure the senator that I, as Alaska’s governor, had no intention of jumping into the race.” She added that she made the contribution at a time when no one seemed willing to challenge “the machine.” Once Miller did so, Palin decided to back him because he is “a bold reformer who is not afraid to stand up to special interests and take on the tough challenges of our time.”
Like Palin’s explanations for other “about-face” type decisions, this one raised as many questions as it answered. But there’s no denying that, like some of her other decisions, the decision to endorse Miller is a bold one. At a time when Palin is flexing her muscle, with some success, on the national political stage, it seems risky to endorse an underdog candidate in her own state. And Miller most certainly is an underdog. According to one poll, 75 percent of Republicans believe that Murkowski deserves re-election.
Palin’s risk is accentuated by reports that her own standing in Alaska is not that high. In May, a Rasmussen poll of likely voters found that only 41 percent would vote for her if she ran for president in 2012. 48 percent said they would not. Of course, Palin rates more favorably among Alaska Republicans, who will be selecting between Murkowski and Miller. And Miller is also backed by the Tea Party.
What about the merits of the Murkowski-Miller race? The Miller campaign and its supporters in the Tea Party call Murkowski a RINO. This claim is silly. Murkowski has voted with the Republicans on the big issues in this Congress, including the stimulus, Obamacare, and financial reform. Moreover, if Murkowski were truly a Republican in name only, surely Sarah Palin would not have contributed to her campaign under any circumstances.
The Miller campaign and the Tea Party has also suggested that Murkowski is working with the White House and congressional Democrats to enact climate change legislation. They point to a meeting she had with President Obama on the subject. But Murkowski says she went to the White House to participate in a bipartisan meeting, and took the opportunity to tell Obama that climate change legislation is a no-hoper.
The fact is that Murkowski, as ranking member of the Senate Energy Committee, has been a thorn in the side of congressional Democrats and the administration. She opposed Democratic efforts effectively to restrict the ability to drill off-shore to foreign companies (this earned her Keith Olbermans’s “worst person” award). She has also led the charge to overturn EPA’s “endangerment” finding for greenhouse gases, a determination that paves the way for agency climate rules. In my view, Murkowski might well be the Republican party’s most valuable member on environmental issues.
Nonetheless, Murkowski’s voting record is not uniformly conservative. Her lifetime ACU rating is around 70, lower than that of Sen. Bennett, who fell victim to the Tea Party in Utah, though not in a primary.
Thus, it’s understandable that the Tea Party wants to replace her with a more conservative nominee. Nor does it seem likely that doing so would put the seat in jeopardy in the very red state of Alaska. Personally, I hope Murkowski is re-elected so she can retain her valuable role as the Republican point person on environmental issues, though reasonable conservatives certainly can disagree.
However, I don’t see much room for disagreeing with the proposition that, with her decision to endorse Miller, Sarah Palin continues to fascinate.
UPDATE: I’m told that it is only the Tea Party Express that supports Miller. The National Tea Party Federation apparently has just expelled the Tea Party Express for refusing to remove its former leader, Mark Williams, from its ranks. Williams has been accused of racism in connection with an offensive piece of satire he composed that mocked the NAACP.
JOHN adds: Some of this, of course, is local politics. Frank Murkowski, Lisa’s father, was a U.S. Senator until 2002, when he was elected Governor of Alaska. As governor, he then appointed his daughter Lisa to serve the unexpired portion of his Senate term. Partly for that reason, he became deeply unpopular with the voters, and in 2006, when he ran for re-election, Sarah Palin defeated him in the Republican primary. She then went on to beat Tony Knowles, the state’s most popular Democrat, in the general election. Despite Palin’s subsequent contribution to Lisa Murkowski’s Senate re-election campaign, bad feelings between Palin and the Murkowski family undoubtedly persist from that 2006 race. Palin is perhaps in the position of not being a prophet in her own home town. Her endorsement, which is coveted around the country partly because of its presumed objectivity, doesn’t have the same context when her own political history is so deeply entwined with the current Senatorial race in Alaska.
PAUL adds: All true. Murkowski also defeated Tony Knowles when she was elected to the Senate in 2004 after previously having been appointed by her father to the Senate. Alaska voters may have held the appointment against the father, but they did not hold it against the daughter. I should add that Lisa Murkowski was due to become Majority Leader of the Alaska House of Representatives when her father appointed her, so it wasn’t as if he plucked her out of obscurity.
Palin might have been better advised to stick with the initial “bury the hatchet” sentiment that caused her to contribute to Murkowski’s campaign. On the other hand, Murkowski tends to be “pro-choice,” so Palin has a principled basis for preferring Miller.