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Explaining Alaska

From msnbc.com's Vaughn Ververs:

Approximately 99.8 percent of Americans don't live in the state of Alaska. Among national political journalists and pundits that number may be north of 100 percent, if that's possible.

Most of the nation knows next to nothing about our 49th state outside of the long winter nights and summer days, the Deadliest Catch or the Iditarod sled dog race. The political world has recently gotten a crash course on Alaska, thanks to Sarah Palin's sudden emergence onto the scene two years ago.

But the surprised reaction emanating from the East Coast Wednesday morning over the state's Republican Senate primary shows there's a great deal left to be learned about politics in the last frontier. The fact that a totally unknown attorney like Joe Miller could be on the verge of defeating incumbent Lisa Murkowski (who was supposed to win overwhelmingly according to the polls) had heads spinning in Washington today.

What happened? Was it Palin (who backed Miller and has feuded with Murkowski)? Was it the Tea Party (elements of which were in the race early and often -- the Our Country Deserves Better PAC/TeaPartyExpress.org spent over $500,000 on the race in the last month)? Is it part of the anti-Washington, anti-establishment sentiment that seems to have popped up elsewhere this year?

Perhaps it was a little bit of those things, but there are other factors to consider as well, most of them involving the particular nature of Alaskans.

The state is hard to understand not just because it is so far away from the political heartbeat in Washington but because it is so inaccessible. Anyone can drop into Dayton, Ohio or Denver, Colorado for a short period of time and pick up the vibe of the place. They can read the local papers, watch the local news, and talk to the local folks.

Parachuting into Wasilla for days, weeks or even months may give you an idea of what that city is and how it operates but tells you nothing about living in Fairbanks, Juneau, Valdez, Nome, Kotzebue, Kodiak or Ketchikan.

Just fewer than 700,000 people live in the state, about 280,000 of whom reside in Anchorage, the largest city. Yet if you were to superimpose the state over the "lower 48," it would stretch from the Canadian Border to the Gulf of Mexico, or twisted another way, it parts of it would stretch from the Atlantic to the Pacific oceans.

So it's a big place, one that can't be easy to poll. It's also a remote part of the world, something we were reminded of by the fatal plane crash that took the life of former Sen. Ted Stevens just weeks ago.

As someone who lived in various parts of the state growing up (including Wasilla) for a total of about five years, and someone who has had family living there for more than 20 years, I'm no expert but think I can bring a little perspective to the situation.

Life is fundamentally different in Alaska, as are many of the customs and some of the language. That's not unique in the U.S. but while other regional differences have become ingrained in our overall national culture, Alaska's remoteness keeps it a mystery.

There were chuckles, laughs and head-shaking when Sarah Palin talked about the "snowmachine" her husband raced after being thrust onto the 2008 stage. It didn't strike me as strange or funny in the least. That's what Alaskans call the vehicle that most Americans know as a snowmobile.

That's a simple example of the sort of unfamiliarity that likely led most campaign observers, including myself, to conclude at the outset of yesterday's primary that Lisa Murkowski would cruise to a win over Joe Miller. She may yet pull out a squeaker but it doesn't appear promising. Had I thought a little deeper and studied up just a little more, I might have picked up on some of the signs of a much closer contest.

The seniority argument: Murkowski made the sell that her eight years in the Senate and lessons learned from Stevens had placed her in a position to bring home the bacon. No doubt, Alaskans have benefited greatly from federal largess for decades and most of them don't want that to end. Stevens just barely lost his re-election bid in 2008 but only after he was convicted on seven felony counts of corruption. Had the trial drug on past the election or the charges thrown out before voters were forced to weigh in rather than after the fact, Stevens almost certainly would have prevailed. Alaskans never forgot what he meant for the state.

But this was a Republican primary and promises of more pork and reliance on Washington was never going to be the winning argument among a group of voters more riled up about what they see as a growing and intrusive federal government.

Palin and the Tea Party: That the Tea Party movement would get a warm reception in Alaska is hardly surprising. In many ways, Palin herself is a product of the libertarian, anti-government, leave-us-alone mentality that is ingrained in many Alaskans and so the attraction is natural between the two.

But it would be a mistake to overplay either Palin's impact or the movement's overall role in the state's politics. Alaskans have long been mostly united by a common goal: The use of the state's natural resources for their betterment. No issue in recent years has played a larger role than the bid to open up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge for oil and natural gas exploration.

But just because the majority may be united on that issue doesn't mean voters agree on all others. The perception of Alaskans is that they dislike government – until it comes time to get the handouts. The reality is more complex than that, just as it is everywhere else. It's just that for some time now, one issue has dominated the state when it comes to sending officials to Washington. A Murkowski loss does not necessarily change that. A Democratic win in November might.

Abortion: Fewer than 100,000 voters participated in the GOP primary, not a terrible number considering the overall size of the state, but a smallish one nonetheless. Missed in much of the commentary and analysis was the contest over a ballot measure that would require parents to be notified before an abortion is provided to girls under 18 years of age. Social conservatives have long been a strong wing of the GOP there. Pat Buchanan won the state in his 1996 bid for the GOP presidential nomination. It is not surprising that such a measure would stir those passions.

The parental notification measure passed with 55 percent of the vote after a fierce campaign that bled over into the Senate contest as Miller forces turned Murkowski's support for abortion rights into an issue, even as she backed the ballot measure. A quick glance at the numbers show that more than three times more voters participated in the GOP Senate primary as the Democratic one, suggesting at least that the issue had some impact on turnout overall.

Frank Murkowski: When then-Senator Frank Murkowski was elected governor in 2002, he found himself in the awkward position of having to appoint his own successor. He picked his daughter.

The move never sat well with Alaskans of either party and voters would later pass an initiative to change the rules for future appointments. Alaska is most certainly not a dynasty state. Still, two years later, buoyed by President Bush's reelection, Lisa Murkowski narrowly won the seat outright over former Democratic Gov. Tony Knowles.

But Frank Murkowski's troubles in the state were then just beginning. After a tumultuous four years in the statehouse, a little-known former Wasilla mayor came from out of nowhere and defeated him in the Republican primary. Just four years later, Palin may get much of the credit (or blame) for the defeat of another Murkowski to a political unknown.

Only in Alaska.