It Didn't Start With the Tea Party

Last Senate Write-In in Alaska

In results that made headlines nationwide, the Alaska senator narrowly lost renomination, grew embittered, and sought re-election in November as a write-in candidate. National political reporters speculated frequently as to who the rogue senator would hurt most in the three-candidate race.

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? That all took place in 1968, when Democratic Sen. Ernest Gruening—who had guided Alaska to statehood while serving as its territorial governor from 1939-59—was edged out in his party’s primary by Mike Gravel, a highly ambitious former speaker of the state house. Much of the primary battle focused on the ages of the candidates (Gravel was 38, Gruening 79) and on left-winger Gruening’s being one of only two senators to oppose the Tonkin Gulf Resolution, which authorized U.S. action in Vietnam. The other was Democrat Wayne Morse of Oregon.

An angry Gruening refused to endorse Gravel and pursued a write-in candidacy against Democrat Gravel and Republican nominee Elmer Rasmussen, the mayor of Anchorage.
Now, with just days to go before this year’s election, the national media are focusing on an Alaska Senate race that is hauntingly similar to the 1968 situation. Will the write-in candidacy of insurgent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (lifetime American Conservative Union rating: 70%) sink the swashbuckling conservative who defeated her in the Republican primary, attorney Joe Miller? Will the Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, once way down in the polls end up eking out a win because of the three-way race? Or will Murkowski actually become the second senator in history elected by write-in votes?

The most recent poll conducted for the Club for Growth showed Miller edging Murkowski by 33% to 31%, with McAdams running third at 27%, but this survey was conducted before a recent spurt of negative stories about Miller.

Last week, I asked one of the key political players in the ’68 contest to explain how the write-in candidacy of a defeated senator affected the race.

“The day after we learned that Sen. Gruening was continuing as a write-in candidate, we figured we had won the election,” said Joe Rothstein, who managed Gravel’s primary and general election race 42 years ago. “Democrats then had an edge in registered voters and our polls showed that Sen. Gruening would take votes from independents who didn’t like Gravel rather than from Democrats.”

Rothstein, who had also been editor of the Anchorage Daily News, recalled that “Democrats had already defeated Gruening—not because of his overall record but because of his age and that one vote on Vietnam. For someone who had been a major figure in Alaska history it was quite a rejection for him to lose in his own party, even narrowly.”

At the time, said Rothstein, “Alaska law permitted small stickers to be put on the ballot with the candidate’s name, so Gruening handed out stickers under the slogan ‘Stick With Gruening.’” Even with this advantage, Gruening fell far short of expectations and drew only 17% of the vote, as Gravel won the first of two terms. (In his memoir Many Battles, Gruening never mentioned his write-in campaign).

Similar, But Some Things Have Changed

These days, noted Rothstein, “the law is different and one must write in the name and [election officials] must determine there is intent to back a particular candidate.” He also pointed out that Alaska today is much more a Republican state and that “if Miller holds on to 70% of registered Republicans, Murkowski will need to get 60% of the independent voters to write in her name and McAdams will need 45% of the independents. If the race tightens to a three-way race, the bar for winning could be 35% and not 40%. In that case, Miller would need only to hold on to about half the Republican vote and get 30% of the independents to win.”

After 42 years, the odds and dynamics still make it difficult for a senator to win as a write-in candidate and the changed demographics favor a Republican. As Rothstein put it, “I would put my money on Miller. But it’s not a slam-dunk.”

It Didn’t Start With the Tea Party

To hear the liberal press report it, the triumph of more conservative candidates in Republican primaries this year from Alaska to Delaware is a stunning new phenomenon. We are told we are seeing a “right-of-center takeover” of the Republican Party fueled by the newly minted Tea Party movement.

To borrow an expression from conservative author M. Stanton Evans, this is moonshine.

As much as the vigor and political punch of the Tea Partiers must be acknowledged, history shows that for more than a generation, the more conservative candidate has usually emerged as the winner in a Republican primary for almost any office. Certainly this was the case when Barry Goldwater overcame Nelson Rockefeller for the Republican nomination for President in 1964. Since I’ve been covering politics for HUMAN EVENTS, the triumph of the candidate William F. Buckley said all conservatives should support, whom he described as “the most conservative candidate who is the most electable” has been the norm in GOP nomination contests.

A classic example came to mind this past weekend with news of the death of Tippy Stringer at age 80. Much was made in obituaries nationwide of her days as a trailblazing woman in television news in Washington, D.C., in the early 1950s and her marriage to NBC-TV anchorman Chet Huntley.

Mentioned in passing was that she was “a Republican candidate” for the U.S. House from Montana in 1978.

When then-Rep. Max Baucus announced for the Democratic nomination for U.S. Senate that year, Republicans from Missoula to Washington, D.C., were hopeful of picking up Montana’s then-open 2nd District. Much of this hope was based on the possible candidacy of the lady then known as Tippy Huntley, who had been a resident of her husband’s home state since they settled there following Chet’s retirement in 1970. There, they founded the Big Sky Resort just outside Bozeman. Chet Huntley died in 1974.

“Tippy was certainly well-known and something of a glamorous celebrity—almost too much for Montana,” recalled former Secretary of State Bob Brown, then a state senator and one of four GOP primary opponents to Huntley in 1978. “She was clearly the least conservative of any of us in that race. And while she obviously benefited from being the widow of Chet Huntley, who was a beloved Montanan, we always thought of Chet as a liberal Democrat.” (The former newsman had been widely mentioned as a Democratic candidate for either of Montana’s Senate seats.)
Former Republican Gov. (1988-96) Stan Stephens recalled Tippy Huntley’s campaign as “pretty generic” and “more based on personality than issues.” One issue on which her position was known was abortion. Huntley was pro-abortion. (In later years, she launched a foundation that supported, among other things, “reproductive education.”)

Along with Brown, the opponents to the well-known Huntley were Missoula County Commissioner Jim Waltermire, sporting goods store owner and 1970 U.S. Senate nominee Harold “Bud” Wallace and political newcomer Richard Fox. Waltermire campaigned hard on his record as a tax opponent and fiscal watchdog in county government and, as the primary approached, conservatives began to switch from the other camps to his.

“He probably evaluated Tippy as an opponent correctly and put on the conservative mantle he needed to defeat her,” said Stephens. Waltermire narrowly topped the primary field, although he would go on to lose in November to liberal Democrat Pat Williams.

Waltermire later became secretary of state and in 1988 sought the Republican nomination for governor. However, he was killed in a plane crash that year and Stephens won nomination and election. Two years after her defeat, Tippy Huntley married actor William Conrad, famed as the star of “Cannon” and “Jake and the Fatman” and the narrator of “The Fugitive,” and moved to Los Angeles.

“We’re hearing a lot about the Tea Party movement in primaries, but in Montana, the more conservative Republican usually wins the primary,” said Stephens, who was Montana chairman of Ronald Reagan’s presidential campaigns in 1976 and ’80. “But that’s pretty much the way it is everywhere, isn’t it?”