JONATHAN COHN NOVEMBER 2, 2010
It's still early in the day in here in Alaska, where voters are just heading to the polls. But all week it has been clear that Democratic Senate candidate Scott McAdams is in a bind. “The most disappointing part of this race is that people, instead of voting the issues, are actually voting their fears,” says McAdams's spokesperson, Heather Handyside. “I know you hear that again and again.” Stuck in the unpleasant position of opposing Tea Party candidate Joe Miller and anybody-but-Joe-Miller candidate Lisa Murkowski, the burly, mustachioed mayor of Sitka has found himself urging people to reconnect with their inner quirky idealist during a year when lefty idealism is on the wane.
Strategic voting is McAdams's big concern. Poll numbers are all over the place, and anywhere between 3 percent and 22 percent of registered voters remained undecided going into Election Day. In 2008, Barack Obama got 38 percent of the vote, even with then-popular Governor Sarah Palin on the ticket—and if McAdams can keep most of those voters, Alaska might suddenly have two Democrats in the Senate. But a significant chunk of those undecideds are waffling between him and Senator Lisa Murkowski, who are both seen as moderates. That leaves McAdams in a tricky messaging spot: His campaign has to convince voters either that Miller isn’t a real threat, or that he is a threat and Murkowski is playing the spoiler, depending on the vagaries of polling—all while distinguishing his scant record from Murkowski’s.
McAdams has responded by going whimsical: He's bombarded voters with positive, funny Paul Wellstone-style ads—including one about being cursed at in Norwegian. Responding to a spot which alluded to his girth, cut by a pro-Murkowski super PAC, McAdams ran an ad claiming he is “twice the man Joe Miller is (literally). And probably three or four Lisas.” McAdams has also run TV spots making clear that he wants to bring home the bacon for the state: He hasn't hauled out the late Senator Ted Stevens’s reanimated body out for an endorsement, but he does use the image of Stevens’s signature Incredible Hulk tie in one ad.
McAdams has also tried to pry away wavering Democrats by hitting Murkowski on her party-line votes, casting her as a mini Mitch McConnell who has sold out Alaska since rising up GOP leadership by voting against appropriations bills. He's also hitting the campaign trail hard, visiting groups like the Anchorage International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW) and trying to personally reassure voters that he can pull this off.
It’s not clear whether that will be enough. About 50 percent of voters say they like McAdams, making him the most popular candidate in the race, but over half the of these voters who approve say they support him—compared with 31 percent of total voters who say they're for Murkowski. No poll has him as a frontrunner: The latest Hays Research poll his campaign is looking to has him within one point, while Murkowski’s internal polling has him 15 points behind. If the reality is somewhere between, that would still be a huge gap to make up in the final days of the campaign. But if he does, it will be a remarkable upset and a significant blow to the Tea Parties.