Weak Tea Party Candidates: Lisa Murkowski Beats Joe Miller in Alaska

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) on Capitol Hill in Washington. Harry Hamburg / AP

And then there were four. In the two weeks since Tea Party–insurgent Republican nominees lost their Senate races in Colorado, Delaware, and Nevada while making it unnecessarily interesting in Kentucky, wags have been wondering whether the new energy of right-wing activists is a double-edged sword for Republicans. Now a fourth Tea Party–backed Republican Senate nominee has lost. On Wednesday afternoon Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Ark.), after being upset in the Republican primary by Sarah Palin's protégé Joe Miller, was declared the winner in the Alaska Senate race by the Associated Press.

Murkowski became the first write-in candidate to win a Senate seat since Strom Thurmond in 1954. Luckily for Republicans, she is a conservative in a conservative state, and so she will continue to caucus with the Republicans. But, having been rejected by her party's base, and having assembled a general-election coalition that is more dependent on independents and Democrats, she could become a mirror image of Democratic scourge Sen. Joseph Lieberman (I-Conn.), who was reelected under similar circumstances in 2006 and has tormented his Democratic colleagues ever since. Granted, she probably won't get on Meet the Press as frequently as Lieberman, but this can hardly be considered a win for the Tea Partiers who want to act as a check from the right on Republicans.

Beltway Republicans are probably also irritated to see all the activist energy that could have gone to winning more seats devoted to this fruitless intramural feud. Is it possible Tea Partiers have done more harm than good for Republicans? They bring national donations and volunteerism from across the country to close congressional and Senate races. And their loud rallies help frame the national conversation on terms that are favorable to Republicans.

But in their quest for ideological purity they toppled incumbents and anointed establishment candidates in a minimum of seven Senate races and only three of those—Marco Rubio in Florida, Rand Paul in Kentucky, and Pat Toomey in Pennsylvania—ultimately won. And two of those, Paul and Toomey, won by less than a more mainstream candidate would have. It should be noted that the organization making the Tea Party endorsements—Tea Party Express—does not necessarily represent the views of all Tea Party activists either locally or nationally. Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization that does not make endorsements, is trying to distance itself from candidates such as Paladino and O'Donnell. Randy Lewis, a spokesman for Tea Party Patriots, says of the losing trend: "Where Republican consultants chose candidates, they lost; when the Tea Party Patriots' philosophy of choosing candidates organically was followed, they won." Tea Party Express could not be reached for comment in time for this item, and Freedom Works, which also backed Miller, declined to comment. Whatever the specific provenance of each losing candidate, though, the risks associated with nominating a right-wing insurgent are clear.

Many of these candidates are prone to exposing the embarrassing side of conservative extremism (think of Kentucky Senator-elect Rand Paul's problems with the Civil Rights Act or Nevada's losing Republican nominee Sharron Angle's suggestion that pregnant victims of incest and rape make that "lemon situation into lemonade"). They also were at the center of some of the more embarrassing incidents for Republicans in this cycle: Paul's supporter kicking a defenseless woman while she was being held on the ground, Miller's staff handcuffing a journalist for coming to a town hall, and Tea Party favorite Carl Paladino, who upset Rick Lazio in New York's gubernatorial primary, angrily threatening to "take out," among other adversaries, a New York Post reporter and the speaker of the New York State Assembly.

And it isn't just grist for segments on Hardball that these candidates give away. Some Republicans say they cost the GOP three seats in the Senate, now four if you count Alaska. In Delaware, chastity advocate and evolution skeptic Christine O'Donnell upset the popular moderate Republican congressman Mike Castle in the primary and lost resoundingly in the general election, which Delaware political experts agreed Castle would have likely won. Similarly, Angle lost to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who, with Nevada's weak economy and his charisma deficit seemed sure to lose to any halfway presentable Republican. In Colorado, Ken Buck lost to recently appointed Sen. Michael Bennet (D-Colo.), and now Miller has lost in Alaska.

Miller's case is particularly interesting because he was a proxy candidate for Palin, who has feuded with Murkowski. Palin is the epitome of a Tea Party candidate: inexperienced, confrontational, popular, and exciting among the Republican primary electorate and anathema to crucial independents in the general election. O'Donnell and Angle were also propelled in the primaries by Palin endorsements, while John Raese of West Virginia received Palin's and Tea Party groups' active support in the general election but still lost handily to Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin in the Senate race. Candidates, it seems, still matter. With the revelation in Robert Draper's blockbuster New York Times Magazine profile of Palin that she is actively considering a presidential run, it begs the question: who will be the Tea Party candidate in the 2012 presidential election, and will the Tea Party lead the Republicans to defeat again?