Thursday, November 18, 2010

An Election in Alaska

After yet another siege of vote-counting, Alaska's incumbent (Republican) Senator Lisa Murkowski has been pronounced the winner in that state's senatorial election - defeating the official Republican party candidate and "Tea Party" favorite, Joe Miller. Murkowski thus becomes the first senate candidate in more than half a century to win a write-in campaign.
In a political culture which historically has favored a two-party monopoly - the last time a "third-party" candidate captured the White House, it provoked a Civil War - Murkowski's win will certainly stand out. Of course, as an incumbent, already previously elected to the Senate and an heiress of an Alaskan political dynasty (initially appointed to the Senate by her father when he became governor), she hardly counts as an "outsider," however apt (and convenient) such a label may have appeared after her having been dumped by the Republican party's primary.
Indeed, whatever significance her victory may have may lie precisely in her insiderness. Of course, as in any election, particular circumstances and strictly local considerations undoubtedly played their part, thereby mitigating the election's larger or national significance. One such local consideration may have been the bad history between Murkowski and Alaska's potential 2012 "Favorite Daughter," Sarah Palin, who threw her considerable standing behind Joe Miller. Of course, any setback for Palin presumably has larger and national implications - not just for her own possible presidential ambitions, but for her long-term star-power and how that translates into real power, ideologiclaly and politically.
In any case, I think it is possible to see in the Alaskan results yet another example of the long-standing practice of the American electorate of first rewarding but then restraining extremist elements. Think back a few years to Connecticut Senator Joseph Liberman's political near-death experience - first his defeat in a left-wing primary coup and then his General Election victory as an "Independent."
In modern American politics, party primaries have become a principal vehicle for rewarding extremist elements - both left and right. That's what made Murkowski's primary opponent's candidacy possible in the first place. Murkowski's write-in win was a reminder of the sober side of American political culture which regularly pulls toward the middle - or at least back from the brink.
When political parties surrendered their control over nominations to primary election voters, they surrendered an important part of what had been one of their main historic funcitons in American politics - producing capable candidates and creating coalitions capable of actual governance and not just permanent political campaigns.

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