News / USA

Alaska's Republican Senator Murkowski Trailing Conservative Rival

Veteran Republican Senator John McCain has easily defeated a conservative challenger in the Arizona Republican primary election.  But in Alaska, Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is in a race against a conservative Tea Party challenger that is still too close to call.  

Primary elections across America this year to choose Democratic and Republican candidates for the midterm elections in November have shown that voters often appear to be angry with establishment, incumbent candidates.  

Political reporter Alex Isenstadt, of the online and print news agency Politico, says Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski may turn out to be another example of voters punishing the incumbent.

"In Alaska you have one of the biggest political upsets of the year brewing, with Lisa Murkowski, the senator there, so far losing in her primary bid against Attorney Joe Miller, who had been challenging her," he said.

Murkowski trailed Miller by fewer than 2,000 votes, with as many as 16,000 absentee ballots to be counted, beginning next week.

Murkowski's poor showing and possible loss to the politically-inexperienced Miller has shocked many analysts.  Joe Miller made big government a major campaign issue and accused Murkowski of not being conservative enough.

Reporter Isenstadt points out Miller was endorsed by former Alaska governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a favorite of conservative Tea Party activists.

"Palin has endorsed in a lot of races this cycle, she has had mixed success, but this race last night, if she played a key role there, that really just shows the ongoing influence that Palin has in these races, I think," said Isenstadt.

Palin also endorsed her former running mate for the 2008 presidential election, Republican Senator John McCain of Arizona.  In running for the nomination for his fifth term in the U.S. Senate, McCain faced former Republican congressman J.D. Hayworth.  McCain crushed Hayworth in the primary.  In his victory speech late Tuesday, McCain expressed optimism that Republicans have the momentum for elections in November.

"I am convinced that Republicans will win in November and we will regain our majority in both the Senate and the House," he said.

McCain recognized the threat from challenger Hayworth early in the race, and shifted his position on the biggest issue in Arizona, illegal immigration, to the right.  McCain, who had once supported comprehensive immigration reform and a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, and rejected calls for a fence along the southern U.S. border with Mexico, campaigned for tough enforcement of border security and called for the border fence to be finished.  

Isenstadt said that during the primary race, McCain also rejected the label of "maverick" or independent that he and Sarah Palin had used almost daily during their White House bid against then senators Barack Obama and Joe Biden.

"McCain ran hard to the right, he portrayed himself as having a more conservative record in the Senate than he probably has had, and he ran away from that maverick label that he had really embraced during his presidential run," said Isenstadt.

Political analyst Larry Sabato of the University of Virginia said John McCain is a survivor.

"Look, it is all about politics, it is all about getting re-elected.  Politicians do what they have to do to win.  If John McCain had run as a maverick in this Republican primary, in this year of the Tea Party, he would lose his Senate seat.  Instead he decided he wanted to win.  And in order to win he had to tack to the right," said Sabato.

Another surprise Tuesday was political outsider and millionaire businessman Rick Scott's win in the Florida Republican primary for governor over well-known state Attorney General Bill McCollum.  Also in Florida, Democratic Representative Kendrick Meet defeated billionaire real estate investor Jeff Greene in the race for the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate.  Meek will have tough opponents, facing Florida Governor Charlie Crist, a former Republican who is now running for the senate as an independent, and Marco Rubio, who easily won the Republican primary.

Political analyst Larry Sabato said it is Democrats and not Republicans who are likely to bear the brunt of voter anger and anxiety in the November elections.

"This is not turning into an anti-incumbent election, it is basically an anti-Democratic election," said Sabato.  "That is because we have a Democratic president.  And traditionally, in American midterms, when conditions are bad in the economy, the voters vote against the incumbent party, not incumbents generally, but the incumbent party, and that is the Democrats."

The entire House of Representatives and one-third of the U.S. Senate are up for election in just 70 days.  The vote could change the balance of power in one or both houses, where the Democratic party now holds the majority.  The elections will also affect President Obama's ability to set the agenda and get his polices enacted during the next two years.

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