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Alaska: Last Frontier for moderate politics

Amanda Coyne
Aaron Jansen illustration

For a while at least, it sure looked like the tea party, the most conservative of conservative groups in the country, had gained a strong foothold in Alaska. They had a promising candidate in Joe Miller, a lawyer, former federal magistrate, a Yale Law grad. Just the right age, the right amount of facial hair, living in the Interior which lends itself to real Alaska creds. And they had a few issues, to put it mildly: health care, a weak economy, federal money flying off the presses and into the hands of bankers and Wall Street executives. But mostly they had a target: A moderate Republican senator who appeared soft on government-run health care, voted for at least one stimulus package. And better yet, she was appointed to her position by her father, a figurehead of Alaska’s old-guard GOP -- the "good ol' boys," Sarah Palin called them.

Speaking of Sarah Palin, they had her too, of course. The tea party’s mamma grizzly. If not the founder of the group, certainly the figurehead. All of this in this great ruby-red state of Alaska. A place that, at least on paper, looked about as conservative as any state in the country. A state that hadn’t voted for a Democratic president since Lyndon B Johnson in 1964; a state that until 2008, had not sent a Democrat to Congress since 1974.  A place of cabin-dwellers and super voters, discontents and eccentrics, people prone to abstract anger over the state of the country. What could go wrong?

Well, perhaps a mischaracterization of Alaska's ideological makeup, for one. If anyone should have known about this make-up, it was Sarah Palin herself, who won the 2006 Republican race precisely because she ran as a moderate. It was really her only choice. Big Oil -- basically synonymous with Alaska's strident GOP -- had dominated Alaska's politics since the 1980s. But an unpopular Republican governor along with a political corruption scandal involving Big Oil and vote-buying broke that stranglehold. Both were on the run, and with them they took many of the standard bearers of staunch conservatism in Alaska.

Palin continued to have such high approval ratings in this state before McCain picked her because she governed as a moderate, some say in fact a radical leftist. In fact, she was closer to the Democratic legislators than any governor before her since the 1980s.

And then of course Miller went wrong. The handcuffs, the failure to answer questions, the frantic look in his eye when it looked like Murkowski might actually win her quixotic write-in campaign, one that involved the citizens having a pretty good idea of how to spell her name, for one, to write it in, number two, and lastly, to fill in the circle next to the written in name.  It seemed impossible. But it also seemed to be working. And the more frantic he got, the lighter she became. Before Miller won the primary, her steps seemed laden and heavy, carrying a big burden, a big elephant, perhaps.

After Miller won the Republican primary, and after she bucked her own party with that write-in decision, she put the elephant down and gave it a metaphoric kick. When asked recently if the experience was liberating, she immediately said, "Yes."

"I was never going to out-conservative Joe Miller," she said. So she didn't really try. She could become herself.

"She’s practically the only Republican in the country who isn't being pulled to the far right," University of Alaska Anchorage history professor Steve Haycox said. "We finally have the Lisa Murkowski we knew when she was in the state Legislature," he said.  That was the Lisa that was pro-choice, who proposed an income tax, who seemed eminently sensible.

Now, she's one of a handful of U.S. senators considered politically "moderate." She voted to rescind Don't Ask Don't Tell. She voted against defunding Planned Parenthood. Has voted with the Dems on some tax policies, on an immigration bill, on a nuclear arms treaty with Russia, to name a few. 

And in this allegedly ruby-red state, Alaskans approve. A recent poll conducted by Dave Dittman, who often polls for Republicans, had her approval ratings at more than 70 percent. Joe Miller and Sarah Palin, on the other hand, are in the tank. More than 70 percent disapprove of Miller, and more than 60 percent disapprove of Palin. Democratic Sen. Mark Begich does pretty well too, with a 57 approval rating. Rep. Don Young's approval is at 63 percent.

Perhaps more surprising was what Dittman found out about Obama, whose Alaska approval ratings were about 47 percent, according to the March poll results.

Did something change in Alaska over the past years? Did Sarah Palin's reign effectively kill the staunch Republican stranglehold Alaska seemed to have over the state? Or has Alaska always been mischaracterized as a bright red state, lumped -- by East Coasters who, when they come up from their chardonnays long enough to think about the red swaths of the country west of the Mississippi -- tend to lump us all together as one?

Surprise: Alaska conservatism unlike Utah's

When Michael Lyons, assistant professor of political science Utah State University, heard about Murkowski's recent approval number, he said, "Wow. That's surprising." When he heard about how Obama rates in Alaska, he said, "Well, Alaska and Utah are very different." So is Alaska very different from Idaho, from Wyoming and from other Western Republican states with which it is often compared.

For one, in all of those other states, Republicans have firm control of their state legislatures. In Alaska's State House, there are 16 Democrats and 24 Republicans. The state Senate is split: 10 to 10. Secondly, those other states tend to be dominated by conservative Christians. Alaska is the least pious state, according to a 2010 Pew Research survey.

And finally, there's the issue of oil. That one resource funds up to 90 percent of state government, allows Alaskans to live without an income or sales tax and receive a check every year just to breathe Alaska air. Oil has controlled Alaska politics for decades. When that control was sullied -- as it did recently -- so did the politics it controlled.

And then there's another thing. Alaskans don't tend to think of themselves as particularly conservative. Alaska isn't now--nor will it likely ever be while ANWR remains off limits to drilling, and environmentalists sue every time someone puts a stake in the ground--a blue state.  But according to a 2010 Gallup poll, Alaska is fairly well right in the middle of the pack, ranking 21st in a survey of the most conservative/liberal states. In that poll, 42 percent of Alaskans called themselves "conservatives." The remaining respondents were either "moderate" or "liberal." Dittman found much the same in the last poll he conducted about the way that Alaskans described their ideology. In that poll he found that 17 percent of Alaskans considered themselves "very conservative," about 32 percent "somewhat conservative" and the rest were moderate, liberal, and very liberal.

Dittman wasn't surprised by those numbers. He said that although Republicans dominated the Alaska Legislature throughout the 1990s and into the new millennium, he thinks that the state was always more moderate than its reputation. That reputation came in part from conservative party leaders in Juneau and didn't necessarily reflect the state's populous. The state's outsized reliance on federal funds accounts for some of this.

"This reliance doesn't line up with far-right ideology," Dittman added.

Secondly, about 24 percent of Alaska's civilian workforce is employed by the government, while the national average is about 14 percent. Many Alaskans do it, but it can be a stretch for the more intellectually honest conservatives to claim to be anti-government when that same government is paying the bills and providing the best tax-subsidized health insurance for their families.

It was this kind of ideological inconsistency that the Tea Party Express bumped into when it came to Alaska to campaign for Miller. Bryan Shroyer, who now works for Miller at the Western Representation PAC, a political offshoot of the tea party, was surprised when he came to Alaska as part of the Tea Party Express.

"It is an interesting juxtaposition," he said. "Alaska's elected conservatives are more than happy to fight for federal dollars and allow (federal) influence in Alaska. And then you've got this strong undercurrent of sovereignty -- of wanting the federal government to leave Alaska alone."

Indeed, oftentimes both sentiments can be expressed in nearly the same sentence, which could, and did, baffle even the most flexible ideologue.

Speaking of baffling, there is the Sarah Palin factor.

Alaska's liberals absolutely loved Gov. Sarah Palin

It has tended to get muddled for some folks, particularly ardent Palin fans, but let's be clear: The meltdown of Alaska's GOP -- largely a result of the federal corruption investigation in Alaska -- did not come about because of Palin. But she certainly benefited, and so did the Democrats and more moderate Republicans. When Palin won the governor's race in 2006, the Dems picked up a few seats in the state Legislature.

But more than that, the anti-tax mentality as it pertained to oil, which for decades had served as a bellwether of conservative ideology, all but disappeared.

In 2007, Bill Allen, the owner of Veco Corp., an oil field services company, pleaded guilty of bribing state lawmakers to keep oil industry taxes low, and the public wanted revenge. Palin was quick to comply, and any lawmaker who balked, who tried to stick to conservative low-tax talking points, was labeled as corrupt, in the pocket of the oil companies, part of the "good ol' boy network" or the "Corrupt Bastards Club."

Palin lost no time raising oil taxes, the largest increase in state history, and she passed legislation that set terms on building a dream of a natural gas pipeline that was anathema to the state's oil companies. She did all this by aligning herself with the Democrats, who loved her for it, who grew more powerful because of it, and who so far have not given up that power.

Gov. Sean Parnell, to whom Palin passed the reins when she quit her job in 2009, along with a powerful industry-friendly group, have worked like mad this legislative session to try and get some of those Palin taxes rescinded. The Dems, along with some moderate Republicans in the state Senate, are holding firm.

They're winning, for now.

Haycox attributes all of this to both the corruption trial and to Palin. Without either, none of this would be happening.

"The corruption scandal allowed people to talk freely in the first time in a decade about the role of oil in Alaska politics," he said.

And then Palin swooped in and took that talk to action. And then, when she was picked by McCain, she stunned many Alaskans by morphing into a low tax, private sector, tea party champion. And then she quit her job.

And all of it, particularly her last incarnation, left a lingering bad taste in the public's mouth.

None of this helped Joe Miller in the 2010 general election. In fact, that Sarah Palin endorsed him probably hurt him. And neither of them have much helped the tea party in Alaska, if the current approval poll about their nemesis, Murkowski, are to be believed. They're not backing down, however.

Back at Western Representation PAC, Shroyer said that the tea party will likely challenge Republican Rep. Don Young in 2012, and still has high hopes for Alaska.

For her part, Murkowski is sitting pretty. And she hopes to see more moderates elected to the U.S. Senate, she said, but she doesn't see much hope for it in the current environment.

"Primaries are not conducive to a more moderate voice," she said. She should know. 

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda(at)alaskadispatch.com

Correction: The orginal version of this article said that Alaska voted for Jimmy Carter in 1976. The last time it voted for a Democratic president was LBJ in 1964.