Incumbent GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski's stunning setback in Alaska sends a powerful message to political insiders in both parties: Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is now the GOP's clear No. 1 kingmaker.
Upstart candidate Joe Miller, who made a lightning-fast rise in the polls following Palin's endorsement and robo calls, credited Palin for his primary shocker.
"I'm absolutely certain that was pivotal," he told The Anchorage Daily News.
With an estimated 98 percent of the vote tallied — and with thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted — Miller leads Murkowski by 1,960 votes.
Political pundits suggest the outcome elevates Palin to unique status within the Republican Party.
"Clearly Sarah Palin is the most influential Republican in America," Democratic pollster and Fox News commentator Douglas Schoen tells Newsmax. "That much is clear as the primary season winds down. And Palin clearly is the candidate who will generate the most enthusiasm if she runs in 2012."
Miller appeared to come out of nowhere in the campaign's closing days. A poll that RT Nielsen released Friday showed Murkowski still leading Miller by a strong margin, 47 percent to 35 percent.
The Murkowski and Palin families are considered rivals in Alaska politics. Murkowski blasted Palin's involvement in the race on Tuesday.
"I think she's out for her own self-interest," Murkowski told the Daily News Tuesday. "I don't think she's out for Alaska's interest."
Whether Murkowski can prevail somehow is far from clear. The Alaska Division of Elections received more than 16,000 requests for absentee ballots. Of those, 7,600 had been recorded as returned as of Monday.
The first of several sessions to count those ballots has been scheduled for Aug. 31.
But regardless of the final outcome, the surprisingly close election has garnered Palin a new level of respect among political insiders.
Nor is her influence seen as limited to her home state — her endorsement was considered a key factor in shoring up Sen. John McCain's right flank in his primary victory Tuesday over former Congressman J.D. Hayworth in Arizona.
"Looks like Miller won," political analyst and Fox News commentator Dick Morris tells Newsmax. "Palin's victory in Alaska is very impressive.
"She had defeated Murkowski's father for governor in a Republican primary, and just defeated the daughter in a Senate primary," Morris says. "I think she also played a key role in helping build sentiment about McCain moving to the right, and tying him in with the tea party movement. She made him look like less of a RINO. Both wins demonstrate her power."
Commentator and syndicated columnist Patrick J. Buchanan called the result "astonishing" on MSNBC Wednesday morning.
"Lisa Murkowski is a fairly popular senator from Alaska who settled in," he said. "And after the death of Ted Stevens, it looked like she was a winner.
And Sarah Palin steps in, and this fella who's relatively unknown nationally, is known in Alaska, can put him not only in the competition but maybe into the Senate race itself — this is very, very dramatic."
Miller also received a key endorsement from the grassroots-conservative Tea Party Express.
Susan A. MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida, cautions that Palin's influence appears to vary from state to state.
Palin played a major role in Nikki Haley's triumph in South Carolina, for example, but her endorsement wasn't enough to propel Karen Handel over Rep. Nathan Deal in the race for Georgia governor.
But MacManus says the result shows Palin "definitely has clout."
"She's become the best at mobilizing grass-roots Republican voters," MacManus tells Newsmax. "She's great at coming into a place and raising money and getting people's attention and raising money for a candidate she's endorsing.
"She's keeping that anti-Washington message alive for Republican candidates all the way up and down the ballot. Because it is true people are looking at this election through the lens of how they're looking at Washington."
If Murkowski loses, she would be the seventh congressional incumbent to lose in a primary this year — a clear signal that voters aren't pleased with the policies coming out of Washington.
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