Campaign Profile: For Joe Miller, 2010 Looms Large

This is the third in a series about the three Republicans vying for the chance to challenge Sen. Mark Begich in November. Click here to read about Mead Treadwell and Dan Sullivan.

Joe Miller

Joe Miller.

Here’s the story Joe Miller likes to tell about healthcare, that he told at his campaign launch in April: When he was in first grade, he injured his lip in a bad fall.

“And (I) hit my face flat on the floor. And we didn’t have health care, so of course I didn’t go to the doctor,” he said.

It healed badly. He lived with the disfigurement for six years, but he saved his money to pay for surgery.

“I got a bus ticket, made an appointment, found a doctor, paid I think $200 or $300 and had them cut the scar tissue,” he said.

It’s a story of self-reliance and free enterprise, well suited to a Tea-Party candidate who rails against “Obamacare,” who says we must slash federal spending and entitlements to avoid national bankruptcy.

There’s another healthcare story he doesn’t talk about: After Miller moved to Alaska and had kids of his own, his family signed up for Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor. Asked repeatedly how he feels about that period in his family’s history, he turned the question into one of federal mandates. He says each state should decide whether to provide assistance.

“It’s a decision that the people of the state should make. Not one that the federal government should make,” he said. “I think it’s an upside down world when we think the ruling classes in Washington, D.C. should be making all these calls and decisions for us.”

This is as close as he would come to discussing his own experience on Medicaid: “My family’s been in situations where we have been in need, and as a consequence of it our objective is not to leave other people in need. The objective is to make sure we don’t end up hitched up to a federal government that completely tubes the entire country.”

The Medicaid episode is just one of a string of unflattering revelations that came out of the 2010 contest. His campaign website lists some of them as “myths.” The 2008 incident where he used his co-workers’ computers at the Fairbanks North Star Borough to skew an online political poll? The campaign says he had a “lapse in judgment” and was briefly dishonest before coming clean. The time during the last campaign that his bodyguards handcuffed a reporter? The guards weren’t paid campaign staff, Miller’s website explains, and anyway one of them turned out to be an FBI informant working for the other side.

As for the farm subsidies he accepted in the ‘90s, Miller says it was only about $100 a month. He says he’s not sure he could have refused them since they were in place when he acquired the Kansas farmland.

“I think that that provides me with a better position probably than many other people to comment on why those programs are bad,” he said. “You’ve got a government that is basically directing a farmer to grow a certain crop, or else they’re penalized. Wouldn’t it be better for the farmers to determine, based upon the market, what’s best for them to grow?”

Miller beat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the 2010 primary, only to lose to her in the general when she mounted a write-in campaign. He is clearly bitter toward Republicans who helped Murkowski win.

He says he was done in by the Republican establishment and a multi-million dollar smear campaign against him. Miller says his worst mistake of 2010 was letting establishment-wing Republicans work on his campaign after the primary.

“One of the biggest lessons was to keep the loyal folk around you, and to recognize that when you’re an anti-establishment reform candidate, you’re going to have enemies from all sorts of unexpected places,” he said.

Miller points out he’s the only non-millionaire in the race. He grew up in Kansas, the son of an independent church pastor and says his family got by despite limited means.

“My mom, for example — how many of you remember Toughskins, from Sears?” he asked the crowd at his campaign launch in Wasilla. “You know why as a kid you bought Toughskins? Because if you wore out the knee Sears would give you a new pair.”

He’s a West Point grad who was awarded a bronze star for commanding a tank platoon in the first Gulf War. He earned a Yale law degree and, in addition to working as an attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, also served as a magistrate, both state and federal. After Yale, he got a master’s degree in Economics from UAF. He and his wife Kathleen have eight children and a grandchild.

While 2010 left him with big negatives, he also emerged with a good chunk of campaign cash, more than $800,000. He transferred about half of it to the current campaign.

Another benefit that grew from his 2010 race is a cadre of loyalists. His campaign launch in Wasilla was crowded with eager supporters. Christopher Kurka, executive director of Alaska Right to Life, was there with his family. Alaska Right to Life later endorsed Miller, even though his Republican opponents say they, too, oppose abortion. Kurka says his group considered a double endorsement but concluded that Miller’s commitment was more reliable because he has never supported candidates on the other side of the issue.

“Joe’s pro-life rhetoric is rooted in the core of who he is,” Kurka says.

Anchorage Political blogger Amanda Coyne says Miller appears more confident and fluent than he did in 2010. She ticks off his assets as a candidate.

“He has command of the issues, no. 1. He’s got a clear vision, no. 2. He’s incredibly articulate and his message appeals to the Tea party base in the state,” she said, “ and the Tea Party base is very devoted and very committed to their candidates.”

But Coyne says there’s not much he can do to convince Alaskans to disregard what they learned about him four years ago.

“To try to get over the 2010 negatives would demand almost a personality transplant and he’s not going to do that, he has no intention of doing that — from what I’ve seen at least — and I don’t think he can do that,” Coyne said.

Polls suggest Miller is trailing Republicans Dan Sullivan and Mead Treadwell. If he loses on Aug. 19, would he run as a third-party candidate? Miller won’t say.

“Because to (answer) would be making basically a vicarious promise to both of my opponents who have already demonstrated a lack of trust in that area,” he said. “They both, of course supported Murkowski in 2010, against the Republican nominee.”

As Miller sees it, Sullivan and Treadwell didn’t respect his win in that primary, so they don’t deserve his pledge to concede if he loses in this primary.

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