Friday, August 25, 2006

Why Alaska Governor Frank Murkowski Got "Spanked" In The 2006 Republican Primary Election

In her column in today's Anchorage Daily News, thrice-weekly (Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday) columnist Beth Bragg presents her perspective of Frank Murkowski's loss in the Alaska Republican primary election on Tuesday August 22nd, 2006 in a column entitled "Unwilling to forgive his sins, voters give Murkowski a spanking". She referred to it as the "Spank Frank" campaign.

She points out that Frank Murkowski is not just the most unpopular nonindicted governor in the United States anymore, but is now the biggest-losing incumbent governor in Alaska history, one of only two sitting governors to lose a primary bid for re-election and the first to do so without having first been threatened with impeachment. Furthermore, he's just the second incumbent governor in 12 years nationwide to lose his party's nomination, and the only one to do so in such overwhelming fashion. All this despite having been elected over Fran Ulmer in what some characterize as a "landslide" in November 2002. Larry Sabato, a prominent political analyist from the University of Virginia, characterized Murkowski's abrupt fall from grace and shattering defeat as mindboggling.

But the fall from grace may not have been as "abrupt" as one might think. According to Bragg, the "Spank Frank" sentiment has been around almost as long as Murkowski has been governor, beginning with the day he bequeathed the U.S. Senate seat he filled for 22 years to his daughter Lisa. But what followed was the laundry list we all know by heart -- the secret negotiations with oil companies; the shortsighted elimination of the longevity bonus for Alaska seniors; the stubborn pursuit of a jet that in recent weeks took Murkowski to all corners of the state for campaign appearances disguised as bill signings; the refusal to rebuke inexcusable behavior by former Attorney General Gregg Renkes and GOP boss Randy Ruedrich.

And yet many, columnist Bragg included, believed the governor would somehow survive his many missteps and wind up on November's ballot. Alaskans tend to reward incumbents -- in 2004, 34 out of 34 incumbents seeking re-election to state and federal offices triumphed -- and we tend to vote Republican. Add Murkowski's almost full-time pursuit of a gas line that promises to deliver our next boom, and unconventional wisdom said enough Alaskans might be forgiving enough to give the man a second chance.

Yeah, right. Sarah Palin, 51 percent. John Binkley, 30 percent. Frank Murkowski, 19 percent. That 19 percent is one for the record book. The only other Alaska governor to lose a primary was Bill Sheffield, a Democrat who in 1986 collected 39 percent of the vote against Steve Cowper, who went on to win the general election. For a bit of perspective in just how humbling Murkowski's defeat was, remember that Sheffield faced impeachment hearings a year before his run for re-election. His term was one of almost perpetual scandal, yet voters didn't embarrass him the way they did Murkowski.

Nationwide, the only other incumbent governor to lose a primary in the last 12 years is Missouri's Bob Holden, who in 2004 earned 45 percent of the votes in that state's Democratic primary.

Holden's liabilities included one shared by Murkowski -- arrogance. Holden began his term with a million-dollar inauguration party. Larry Sabato also cited arrogance in Murkowski's case. "What comes through to people is his pure, unadulterated arrogance,'' he said. "This is truly a living, breathing example of hubris. He really is arrogant, and that's so un-Alaska. If there's one thing Alaska isn't, it's arrogant.''

However, to paraphrase Fidel Castro, history may absolve him, particularly if we get the natural gas pipeline to replace the steadily-depleting oil. After all, Bill Sheffield, despite his political skullduggery, got a railroad depot named after him.
Analysis: Beth Bragg correctly cites all the factors contributing to Murkowski's defeat. The common denominator seems to be arrogance. Despite the fact that every poll taken - the Ivan Moore poll, the Craciun poll, the Hellenthal poll, the Rasmussen poll, and the highly-regarded Dittman poll showed Murkowski trailing badly, he did not change his attitude or approach until the very last minute, when he launched a T.V. spot acknowledging his faults. Too little - and WAY TOO LATE.

And where did this "arrogance" come from? Perhaps his 22 years in Washington. He spent so much time dealing with fellow Senators and high-profile heavy hitters that he forgot how to communicate with ordinary Alaskans at the grass-roots level. His controversial decisions may have been more digestible and understandable had he communicated more concisely and clearly. Perhpas he felt he was so famous and was so self-directed he didn't believe he needed to "sell" his decisions.

However, one other factor may have been the "coup de grace". Instead of jumping into the race in January, while Sarah Palin and. to a lesser degree, John Binkley, were building up a head of steam, Murkowski waited until May 26th to formally enter the race, after Palin had built up a head of steam. At this point, Palin's momentum was unstoppable, and with Binkley in the race to siphon off further support, Murkowski was doomed.

I personally voted for Sarah Palin because of her emphasis on integrity and ethics, her successful management of Alaska's fastest growing city, and the fact that several polls showed she has the best chance of defeating Tony Knowles in November. Stopping Tony Knowles is now JOB ONE. However, Frank Murkowski deserved a more dignified sendoff. Notwithstanding his communication flaws, I believe Murkowski genuinely wanted to do what was right for the state, but simply didn't know how to sell his vision to Alaskans. If we get a natural gas pipeline, we will owe Frank Murkowski a debt of gratitude for at least laying the foundation and erecting the framing.

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