Senate Watch: Alaska and West Virginia

BY Beth Summers  October 29, 2010 at 5:53 PM EDT

At first blush, the U.S. Senate races in West Virginia and Alaska seem to have little in common. In both states, however, conservative superstar Sarah Palin has endorsed the Republican candidate, and the national mantra of frustration toward Washington is very much at play.

We checked in with two political experts covering the races on the ground to see what they’ll be watching for on Tuesday. In Alaska, Michael Carey hosts the weekly program “Anchorage Edition” on KSKA Public Radio, and is a columnist for the Anchorage Daily News. In West Virginia, Robert Rupp is a professor of political science at West Virginia Wesleyan College.

Alaska: “It’s a remarkable election that’s going to have a chaotic finish.”

HOW CLOSE IS THE THREE-WAY SENATE RACE BETWEEN REPUBLICAN JOE MILLER, DEMOCRAT SCOTT MCADAMS, AND WRITE-IN CANDIDATE LISA MURKOWSKI IN ALASKA?

Michael Carey: By Wednesday morning, we are not going to know who won. This is the most unusual election I can remember, because of the volatility and the unpredictability of it. The Murkowski supporters — thousands of them are going to have to go in to voting booths and fill in the electronic bubble, and then write some semblance of the name ‘Murkowski’ in. What is passable in terms of spelling will be decided later. The question is how many errors will there be. Then, there’s the whole business of whether the polling places will be able to provide a list of the write-in candidates for anyone who asks for one. How this would work exactly, we don’t know, and the Alaska state supreme court is hearing arguments on this today. The outcome of that ruling will be significant. It really would help Murkowski if voters could request a list of write-in candidates and take it into their polling booth, if only to have the correct spelling in front of them.

In the meantime, Joe Miller’s campaign has almost self-destructed. It’s been almost six continuous weeks of bad publicity for him, often self-generated. On Wednesday, there was a headline on the front page of the Anchorage Daily News about the employment records released from his time working in Fairbanks as a part-time lawyer. He was disciplined for behavior his employers didn’t like, and the details get complicated, but the bottom line is that Joe Miller signed a statement admitting he lied, and it’s quite something to see a politician admitting that he lied. On the other hand, Miller has his supporters, and he has the Tea Party and the friends of the Tea Party, who are all going to be there for him.

AND WHO IS THE DEMOCRATIC CANDIDATE, MAYOR SCOTT MCADAMS? WHAT PLATFORM IS HE RUNNING ON?

Michael Carey: Scott McAdams was the young man nobody had ever heard of six weeks ago, until it became apparent he could actually win, at which point Democrats really started raising money for him, some one million dollars in a very short period of time. He has been made fun of because of his weight, called Mayor McCheese, Pizza Boy, Fatso – he’s a big guy. But he’s turned all of that to his advantage, simply by being the most likable of the three candidates and putting on an articulate campaign. It’s unlikely he’ll win, but he could come in second.

WHAT DO THE POLLS SHOW?

Michael Carey: All the candidates have serious flaws, that’s where we are today. The winner will likely get less than 40% of the vote. The latest polls show Murkowski winning, McAdams coming in second, and Miller third. But I’d like to know more before I hazard a guess. Clearly Murkowski is favored if they can get people to write her name in correctly. There are over 500 polling places. Alaska is huge, so in these little towns and communities, God knows how they are all going to conduct this election.

HOW IS SARAH PALIN INFLUENCING THE RACE?

Michael Carey: She has fired up the Joe Miller base and the Tea Party base. Last night was her first joint appearance with Miller in Anchorage, and they really fired up the supporters. I think she has a limited role here in the number of people she can turn on in this election, though. She stepped down from being the governor and made $9 million in less than a year as a national figure and a celebrity, and most people here have made up their minds about her by now. They either like her or they don’t.

HOW BIG OF A PRESENCE IS THE TEA PARTY IN ALASKA?

Michael Carey: It’s significant, no doubt, but the real significance was that the Tea Party Express from California came up and dropped $600,000 into the race for Joe Miller, and you can buy a lot of media here for that kind of money.

WHAT DO ALASKA VOTERS CARE ABOUT? WHAT ARE THE BIG ISSUES THEY’LL BE VOTING ON?

Michael Carey: This is really what’s interesting, because clearly the voters are very divided. There is a group of Tea Party people who are very angry at Washington and fearful for the future, and angry at Obama. They want change in Washington, a new direction, new leadership. But the Murkowski voters are very status quo. It’s a very odd thing to see a rally where she says that if she is reelected, tomorrow will look just like today. I would bet that every lobbyist in Alaska is going to vote for her. Her base is people worried about the government changing its relationship with Alaska, and the loss of federal funds. Ted Stevens gave us a lot of money, and that’s what they are hoping Murkowski will do, keep the pipeline flowing. There is also a lot of strategic voting going on, people who are afraid or who want to punish a candidate. One person I talked to is voting for Joe Miller because he hated Murkowski’s father. That kind of thing goes on everywhere in the country, it’s just more pronounced here. It’s a remarkable election that’s going to have a chaotic finish.

West Virginia: “Joe Manchin literally shot the President’s legislation.”

HOW CLOSE IS THE SENATE RACE IN WEST VIRGINIA BETWEEN DEMOCRATIC GOV. JOE MANCHIN AND REPUBLICAN BUSINESSMAN JOHN RAESE?

Robert Rupp: The Senate race is unexpectedly close. There are two numbers to know. Manchin’s popularity is at 70 percent, and Obama’s is at 30 percent. So you have a very popular Democratic governor running for the late Democratic Senator Robert Byrd’s seat, and everything thought it would be a cake walk. But the opposing candidate, John Raese, who ironically ran against Byrd last time around, was able to frame the campaign in terms of linking Manchin directly to an unpopular president. Since September, Manchin has been trying to play catch-up by trying to break that link established in voters’ minds between Manchin and Obama. It appears now Manchin may be able to win, mainly because Manchin has been able to portray Raese as an outsider. Another way to look at it is that in Appalachian culture, we’re suspicious of outsiders. Also, Obama appears at odds with the state for number of reasons. What Raese tried to do was exploit these suspicions, even though Manchin is a conservative Democrat, especially on fiscal matters. If Manchin is in trouble in West Virginia, then the Democratic party is in trouble in America. For the surge to reach the Mountain State, that’s a story.

What Manchin has had to try to do is portray Raese as outsider, both geographically, as he has a house down in Florida where his wife and daughters live, and ideologically, by saying Raese is against things like the minimum wage. Back in August, Manchin was ahead by 20 points in what looked like it would be an apparent blowout, but by mid-September, Raese had caught up and even surpassed Manchin by using this linkage strategy, and now it appears in this last week, Manchin has a slight but not numerically significant lead. If we’re looking at a trend, Manchin is in a better situation than he was five days ago.

The interesting question is where will the progressive Democrats go? It’s a big huge tent here, West Virginia is two-to-one Democratic. It’s a very large tent when it comes to the Democratic party. The question is the third party candidate, Jesse Jackson, who has been barely polling in the single digits, but the concern among Democrats is that enough progressive Democrats could end up sending a protest vote, because Manchin has not only gone to the right, he has run to the right.

DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL COMMITTEE CHAIR TIM KAINE HAS SAID HE IS “NOT WILD” ABOUT THE JOE MANCHIN AD WHERE HE SHOOTS THE CAP & TRADE BILL AND REFERS TO ‘OBAMACARE.’

Robert Rupp: He literally shot at it. Joe Manchin literally shot the President’s legislation. And don’t forget the ‘hick’ ad, that also plays in to this race. Raese said he had nothing to do with that, but it portrays the fact the Republican party went to Philadelphia to make a commercial to, as many people here see it, make fun of us. What’s happened is that Raese has run twice for this seat before, so he is known, and until that ‘hick’ ad, he had run a good campaign in terms of a lack of mistakes and a focus on this rubber stamp mentality. What Manchin was able to do was to take advantage of that ad to portray Raese as an outsider, and then he was right there shooting the cap and trade law in his own TV ad.

One thing to keep in mind is that this is not an election conversion, with Manchin going right. Manchin has governed as a fiscal conservative and openly criticized the Obama administration, in particular the Environmental Protection Agency, over a year ago. So he had already put some distance there. I think when we write the chapter, it will be that Manchin got overconfident at the beginning, and he let Raese frame the election in terms of that linkage to the President.

WHAT DO WEST VIRGINIA VOTERS CARE ABOUT? WHAT ARE THE BIG ISSUES THEY’LL BE VOTING ON?

Robert Rupp: The economy in particular, since we are one of the poorest states. People are worried about jobs. The second issue is health care. West Virginians are against it. We have a lower approval rating of the health care bill, and of Obama, than most other states. It goes back to the fact Obama got trounced here in the Democratic primary. So people already have that concern or distrust of the President. Raese attacks Obama in his speeches, that’s noteworthy. He usually doesn’t mention Manchin until the third page in.