Joe Miller is one of the most vocal crusaders against the Citizens United campaign-finance ruling, and he might not even realize it.
As the most conservative candidate in Alaska's Senate race, Miller hardly comes off as an anti-corporate poster boy. FreedomWorks and the Club for Growth have both endorsed him. He won the Republican primary against Sen. Lisa Murkowski (now running as a write-in candidate) thanks to the generous financial backing of the Tea Party Express. He has cast himself as pro-development choice, and he's talked about extracting resources from Denali National Park. But when he's not lashing out against the federal government or literally battling the media, Miller is also articulating why unrestrained corporate spending during campaign season can be problematic.
About a month ago, a coalition of Alaska's Native corporations formed a political action committee named Alaskans Standing Together (AST), announced their intention to take unlimited donations, and made Miller their target. Within a week, this Super PAC -- unencumbered by things like donor limits and capped spending, so long as it stays independent, thanks to new campaign-finance rules -- had dropped over half a million dollars on attack ads going after Miller. Miller, in turn, has filed a Federal Elections Commission complaint against the group and has begun using language that sounds, well, progressive.
"It's illegal," Miller says. "These groups that are pumping money into Alaskans Standing Together are federal contractors, and the federal law says that federal contractors with federal money cannot use the money they get from the government to try to influence a federal election. It's that simple."
Miller is referring to Alaska Native regional corporations. The corporations were established about 40 years ago to handle land and resources for Alaska Natives, and their subsidiaries are involved in everything from telecommunications to energy to hospitality. These subsidiaries have access to no-bid contracts from the federal government because of their "economically disadvantaged" status. The corporations and their subsidiaries have received nearly $30 billion in federal money over the past decade, meant to benefit almost 100,000 Native shareholders in the state. As the mission of these corporate entities is more to protect a population than to generate profit, the logic behind Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission applies in the most idealized way possible -- these corporations are intended to amplify marginalized voices. And for those with only partisan concerns, Native corporations -- like labor unions -- were supposed to provide a counterbalance to corporations like Exxon, Target, and Koch Industries that were expected to donate to free-market Republicans and conservative causes. But as Alaskans Standing Together demonstrates, it's not just a matter of which party or ideological worldview gains more.
In addition to the federal money question that Miller rails against, there are a number of murkier conflicts of interests created by the regional corporations' relationship with the incumbent Republican senator AST is backing. Lisa Murkowski's name appeared at the bottom of an FEC declaration form due to an "unfortunate clerical error," according to AST, a mistake that that the Miller campaign seized upon. Alaska Newspapers, a rural chain owned by Calista Corporation, ran an endorsement of Murkowski without disclosing that its parent company contributed to AST. Koahnic Broadcasting, a Native-owned nonprofit whose founding corporation contributes to AST, was called out when its Anchorage public radio station ran an AST spot, despite having a policy against running campaign advertisements.
And then there's the awkward matter of the Alaska Federation of Natives convention. AFN is a statewide Native organization that predates the corporations but works closely with them. Last week, they held their annual convention, which brings thousands of delegates from across the state together to discuss issues like village survival and the inheritance of Native regional corporation shares (those born after 1971 do not automatically become shareholders). The AFN board had endorsed Murkowski prior to the convention, before delegates could approve of the measure. Then, the day before the convention, the board canceled the debate between Miller, Murkowski, and Democratic candidate Scott McAdams. Albert Kookesh, a co-chair of the AFN board who is also on the Native regional corporation Sealaska's board of directors and who serves as a state senator, told the Anchorage Daily News that this was a "purely political move." Kookesh said that the board did not want to invite Miller after he "filed a complaint with FEC against us spending Native money the way we're spending Native money." Kookesh also added that the board did not see a point in opening the stage to the delegates given that they had already made their endorsements.
"We've had hostile candidates address the conventions in the past, and we've survived," says Nels Anderson Jr., a shareholder of the Bristol Bay Native Corporation. Anderson also served on the AFN board during the 1960s and 1970s, first as treasurer and then as chair. The combined actions of Alaskans Standing Together, the regional corporations, and AFN are not just hurting Miller and McAdams, he adds. Shareholders who don't agree with AST's election spending believe that their voice is being marginalized and that they're paying for that privilege.
"If the corporations are going to be engaging in this endorsement process, tribal governments and shareholders should be included, and they're not at this time," says Anderson. "I object strenuously to my shareholder money being used for political purposes without my knowledge and without my consent."
But is any of the activity being conducted by Alaskans Standing Together and the regional corporations illegal? Likely not. It replicates the same problems created by corporate involvement in the political process in the lower 48, in that interest groups drown out the voices of small donors. And in this case, some shareholders may feel left behind by corporations' political actions on top of that. Will Anderson, chair of Alaskans Standing Together and a member of the AFN board, maintains that what they're doing is acceptable under current campaign-finance law -- parent corporations are not affected by their subsidiaries' conflicts, and the group has been vigilant about any potentially "embarrassing issues." And he's likely right. "I'm sure the FEC decision will uphold that position," says Carl Shepro, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska-Anchorage.
What this all immediately means for Alaska's Senate contest is hard to say. Miller's FEC complaint likely will not be resolved by Tuesday, and it probably would not have much of an effect even if it were. According to a recent poll (in, caveat, a state and a race that is notoriously difficult to poll), with 22 percent of the vote, Miller is trailing both Murkowski (34 percent) and McAdams (29 percent). Another poll released yesterday has him in second place, nearly 15 points behind Murkowski. While the AST ads can't be helping, Miller's drop in popularity is more likely attributable to a plague of small scandals -- a reporter in handcuffs, an ethics violation in his past, disclosure that he received the same entitlements that he shuns -- and a growing perception of him as an extreme candidate who won't bring money to Alaska.
If anything, jokes Nels Anderson, the AST campaign combined with the AFN debate cancellation may help McAdams more than hurt Miller. The Democratic candidate has had to spend hardly any money attacking his opponents, and his local Alaska Native Brotherhood and Sisterhood camps have stuck with him instead of endorsing Murkowski: "Maybe it's a blessing in disguise," says Anderson. And as for Murkowski, her seniority and position on the Indian Affairs Committee meant substantial Native support for her regardless.
But if the corporation's approach to this race is any indication for the future, Alaska's Native corporations will become an even more important player in future election cycles, and an expensive one to match. The official Native voice will only get louder -- and more monolithic.