Joe Miller shakes up Senate race, challenges Sen. Lisa Murkowski

Published: Sep. 6, 2016 at 3:06 PM AKDT
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Joe Miller is turning the tables on U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Six years ago, the tea party favorite shocked many Republicans when he knocked off Murkowski in the GOP primary by 2,000 votes. Murkowski responded with an unprecedented write-in campaign and hung onto the seat she has held since 2002 with 40 percent of the vote.

Miller was also part of the field of Republicans vying to unseat Mark Begich in 2014, though he finished second behind now-Sen. Dan Sullivan in the primary.

In recent months, Miller made headlines again as he led an effort to recall Gov. Bill Walker for his veto cutting Permanent Fund Dividend checks in half. However, he previously made no public indication that he planned a third Senate run.

Then in a surprise, last-minute move Tuesday after sitting out the primary, Miller replaced Cean Stevens as the Libertarian Party nominee. That required cooperation from both candidates and the party's board.

The shakeup dramatically changes what previously seemed to be a quiet race that Murkowski could win handily over Democrat Ray Metcalfe, a former state lawmaker and anti-corruption advocate, and Independent Margaret Stock, an immigration attorney and retired Army lieutenant colonel.

"Alaskans deserve a real choice," Miller said in an interview with KTUU. "Of all the states where you could think about running as a third-party candidate, this one is probably near the top of the list where you could have success. Besides that, again, I believe I'm the candidate with the best views that I think most conservative Alaskans, most libertarian leaning Alaskans are going to endorse."

Even though he is leaving behind the GOP in this race, Miller said in an interview that he would caucus with Republicans if elected. He also expressed opposition to portions of the Libertarian Party's national platform that go against his past stated positions -- like the party's support of same-sex marriage, drug legalization, and non-interventionist foreign policy -- and indicated he does not support the Libertarian presidential nominee.

"I'm not a Gary Johnson guy myself," Miller said.

Murkowski easily clinched the GOP nomination with 72 percent of the vote in August, and just a week ago, she was touting internal poll numbers that had her winning with 56 percent of the vote, 44 points ahead of her nearest opponent. But the dynamic with four candidates who have significant support bases makes the race far more difficult to predict.

The incumbent was in Washington and unavailable for an interview Tuesday, a spokesperson said, but in a statement Murkowski said, "I have been preparing for this race for the past several years and look forward to a spirited campaign on the issues that matter to Alaskans most."

The Alaska Republican Party promised to stand by the nominee.

"She won our party’s nomination, and the Alaska Republican Party is completely dedicated to her re-election,” Tuckerman Babcock, the state party chair, said in a news release.

The other major candidates in the race said it gives them a legitimate shot in an presidential election year that was already complicating many down ballot races.

"I was wishing he'd have run in the Republican primary," Metcalfe said of Miller. "He would have taken it. Frankly, had he taken it, I'd have a lot better shot, but even this certainly improves my chances. Three candidates are going to split up the vote, so that does give us as a smaller party a chance of having our nominee be the victor."

Stock also said the four-way race improves her odds because of Miller's proven ability to siphon votes from Murkowski.

She also questioned the sincerity of Miller's shift away from the Republican Party.

"It's interesting to me that he's chosen to run for the Libertarian Party, because he's not one," Stock said. "Libertarians are pro-immigration. They think people should have the freedom to cross borders. Libertarians believe in a woman's right to choose. Joe Miller does not believe in a woman's right to choose. He thinks women should be back in the dark ages."

The general election is November 8.