Recent polling on Miller is scant, but data collected by Alaska pollster Ivan Moore reveals how much the candidate’s reputation had suffered by the end of 2010. In a poll of registered state voters conducted in September of that year, 35 percent had a positive view of Miller, 37 percent a negative one, 12 percent a neutral view; 16 percent said they did not know enough about him to have an opinion. Three months later, just 24 percent of Alaskans in Moore’s survey had a positive impression, while 66 percent had a negative view.
“He came out of that election with the perception of a seriously scary dude,” Moore said. “Joe Miller’s credibility, or lack of it, as a candidate is not a problem for him until he gets out of the primary. Within the Republican primary, they love him. But once the unwashed masses come into the room for the general, he’s toast, because literally every one of them views him as a loon, and they would vote for anyone to prevent him from getting into office.”
Miller is expected to declare his Senate intentions in the coming weeks and would likely face a crowded field of GOP opponents.
Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell announced in December that he was forming an exploratory to consider a run. Treadwell was an early backer of Mitt Romney’s in 2011 and would provide up a sharp contrast with Miller as a business-minded moderate, but he has indicated that he will stay out of the race if Gov. Sean Parnell throws his own hat into the ring.
Parnell is expected to make a decision on whether to run for the Senate or seek a second full term as governor after the close of the current 90-day legislative session, in which he is pushing for a tax cut for oil companies six years after his predecessor, Sarah Palin, helped engineer a sweeping tax increase on the state’s dominant industry.
Parnell has enjoyed general popularity during his tenure in Juneau but may soon have to contend with a budget deficit after nearly a decade of surpluses.
Other Republicans who have been mentioned as possible challengers to Begich include state Sen. Lesil McGuire, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan and a Department of Natural Resources commissioner (and former attorney general) also named Dan Sullivan.
Alaska Democrats note that despite Begich’s steep challenge in winning a statewide race with a “D” after his name, state voters have not traditionally aligned themselves according to party labels, at least not to the extent typically seen in the Lower 48. In fact, only about 27 percent of Alaska’s voters are registered Republicans.
“Politicians up here have much more of a personal than a party brand,” said one Alaska politics observer. “Where else could a senator win on a write-in campaign?”
Though Begich’s 2009 vote in favor of national health care reform remains one of his biggest political vulnerabilities, he has positioned himself as a moderate on a range of issues and is supportive of gun owner rights and drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge.
But despite the incumbent’s quiet strengths, newly elected Alaska Democratic Party Chairman Mike Wenstrup believes that Miller would be a surprisingly strong opponent, in part due to his avid base.
“It’ll be the biggest race probably in Alaska history,” Wenstrup said of the Senate bout next year. “We expect it to be similar to the race Sen. [Jon] Tester ran in Montana in 2012, with lots of outside money coming in and lots of negative attacks from these outside PACs targeting Sen. Begich. At the same time, we expect Sen. Begich to have a lot of support in the state.”
Though Miller has not been deferential to party machinery, a key component to his Senate hopes could ultimately depend on the outcome of an ongoing struggle for control of the state Republican Party. Incoming GOP Chairman Russ Millette -- a Miller ally -- is slated to take office on Friday but has faced continuing challenges from the previous regime because of alleged rules infractions.
That dispute may be settled as early as this week.