The Republican senate primary has reached its end stage, with all three candidates solidifying their final approaches, two weeks before the voters crown the victor. For Joe Miller, this means little. There has been no deviation from the plan he began his campaign with: go as far right as possible, as loud as possible, as often as possible, with as much sign waving as possible. His place within the field, correspondingly, has been to exude a gravitational force that pulls his opponents closer to his hyper-partisan right.
Mead Treadwell, much like Miller, has consistently lagged in the polls behind front runner Dan Sullivan, and has decided his only option is to take Miller’s bait. In the past few months, Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor has tacked right, right, right, trying — often uncomfortably — to out-conservative Miller. Which, short of physically chasing black helicopters with a butterfly net, is really hard to do.
Sullivan, meanwhile, has already began the pivot to the general, backing off the hardline rhetoric and drifting toward the center to appeal to general election voters.
But the fate of this August’s primary is far from decided. Primary politics are, well, primary politics. And, especially in Alaska, anything could happen.
This backdrop made Monday’s “Social Issues Debate,” hosted by the Alaska Family Action (AFA), incredibly interesting. Candidates are running out of opportunities to make their cases to the base, and — aside from Miller — are cognizant that the red meat they offer GOP primary voters today could turn quite rancid in the months leading up to November. Yet to win over social conservatives amenable to the desires of AFA — promoting anti-choice, anti-gay, anti-immigration policies — red meat was clearly being ordered with electoral fervor.
Moderating the debate was Tom Minnery (AFA President Jim Minnery’s cousin), from Focus on the Family and CitizenLink. Focus on the Family is a Colorado-based, Christian non-profit, founded by James Dobson, which advocates policies like abstinence-only education, Creationism, and conversion therapy for gay and lesbian Americans. CitizenLink is the political arm of Focus on the Family.
He’s also well known for a pretty spectacular exchange with Senator Al Franken (D-Minnesota) back in 2011.
Amnesty and the Misguided or Deliberate Misunderstanding of the Border Crisis.
During opening remarks, Joe Miller returned to his staple of populist rhetoric and the legitimate notion that people increasingly feel unrepresented by the two dominant political parties. “[T]he ruling class basically tells you what to think, tells you what to do, and in some places tells you what to eat and drink,” he told an approving crowd of a couple hundred people, gathered in pews lining Community Covenant Church in Eagle River. He said that electing “go along, get along” candidates was a recipe for failure. “You’ve got to have contrast with the ‘Democratic Obama Socialist Machine.’ You have to. You can’t send someone to Washington who says I’m just going to go along with leadership. Amnesty is a good example of that.”
The concluding comment sparked a follow up question from Minnery, who asked candidates to define the term amnesty.
“It doesn’t matter what kind of penalties you pile on. If they’re here and they haven’t done it the right way, you’re rewarding the breaking of the law with benefit and that is a form of amnesty,” Miller explained. He said that free medical care and education served as “inducements” for immigrants to cross the Mexican border, and that taking such inducements away would encourage them to “go back to their countries of origin[.]”
He said that the key to solving the nation’s border crisis was ensuring border security, and said that Congress should have spent the time arguing over President Obama’s request for additional funding to, instead, repeal the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. Sullivan agreed, charging that the current border crisis was the result of the Obama administration not enforcing current laws.
The prescriptions conflict with reality. Much of the current debacle at the border is specifically because Obama is enforcing the law.
President George W. Bush passed DACA in his final year in office. The law mandates that immigrants detained by border patrol be given their day in court to argue for refugee status. The current state of border security has little to do with the lawful guarantee of immigrant children’s right to apply for deferred action under DACA. Deportations considered “removals” — formal deportations where undocumented immigrants are identified and processed — are up considerably under Obama, with over 400,000 in 2012 alone. The giant backlog — the chilling depictions of detainees in makeshift shelters — is a result of the rising number of unaccompanied migrant children apprehended by Border Patrol awaiting the courts to adjudicate their DACA applications. As USA Today reported last month:
As of the end of June, the 59 immigration courts across the USA, run by 243 judges, had a record backlog of 375,503 pending cases[.] Wait times for hearings are averaging about a year-and-a-half, some much longer. The crush of immigrant youths could further strain that workload.
It’s a problem compounded by the fact that Republicans don’t seem particularly enthused about confirming any judges to the open positions that could work through the backlog. Beefing up border security makes little sense when immigrants are showing up for the specific purpose of voluntarily surrendering to border security to apply for refugee status.
Treadwell says that DACA created a loophole that should be closed. Miller fired back that Treadwell allies himself with Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), calling her a “major amnesty backer,” and added that this should disqualify his statement that immigration is a major issue.
“Joe, you are not the litmus test of a conservative in this state and you never have been,” Treadwell responded, awarding him scattered chuckles. “When I use the term ‘pathway to citizenship,’ that to me means pay a penalty and stand in line. That’s the pathway. That is not amnesty. And I wish you would not continue to misrepresent my record.”
Editorializing the Role of Moderator.
Throughout the debate, Minnery added his own often-misleading editorial comments. During his explanation of the Supreme Court’s recent Hobby Lobby decision, he incorrectly asserted that the four versions of contraception key to the case “actually do their work by causing early abortions.” The plaintiff companies made this case, but the Justices conceded that the government defines pregnancy as beginning with implantation. As Alaska Commons has previously noted, the four versions of contraception identified in Hobby Lobby prevent implantation in the uterine wall. By definition, they are not abortifacients.
Minnery additionally broached Senate Democrats’ legislative response to the Hobby Lobby decision, federal legislation entitled the Women’s Health Protection Act, introduced by Senators Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) and Tammy Baldwin (D-Wisconsin).
“It would ensure, practically speaking, that every elective abortion would take place without every being impeded; never being questioned, never being delayed,” Minnery told the Eagle River audience. “It would ensure that abortions could take place even after the time which a young child in the womb feels pain.”
He called it “one of the worst abortion bills we have ever seen since the days of Roe v. Wade.”
The proposed legislation, in actuality, would require states to regulate abortion providers the same way other clinics are regulated. It aims to target the recent trend among the states to, effectively, slap so many restrictions on abortion clinics that they cannot legally exist. As Amanda Marcotte aptly described it to Slate:
[T]he general principle is that if you don’t require it for other outpatient procedures, you can’t require it for abortion. Want to force women seeking abortion to listen to a script full of lies and then make them wait 24 or 48 hours to think it over? Better be prepared to do the same for people who need colonoscopies. Want to require a bunch of unnecessary visits before a woman is allowed to have a procedure? Now you need to do that for a biopsy, too. Want to force abortion clinics to meet ambulatory surgical center standards and abortion providers to have hospital admitting privileges? Well, dentists will have to meet the same standards before they can drill a tooth.
The legislation does not open the floodgates to unimpeded, unquestioned, streamlined abortions. It brings the requirements for abortion clinics in line with regulations for comparable clinics.
When Abortion Should Be Legal.
Minnery addressed the recent AFA questionnaire filled out by the three candidates present on Monday. The only question where there was disagreement involved when abortion should be legal.
Sullivan said that abortion should be legal “when necessary to save the life of the mother, or when the pregnancy is a result of rape or incest.” Before Monday’s crowd, he clarified his position by saying that it did not mean he was supportive of abortions in those situations. “But, because they’re such horrendous situations, and support for the victim in those kind of situations, with rape and incest, it’s so very important from my perspective — that’s something that the family should be making the decision on.”
“I don’t think we ought to be talking about exceptions, I think we ought to be talking about life,” he elaborated. “Why are we going to punish the sons and daughters for the father’s sins? That’s effectively what we do with the rape and incest exception…. If you think God’s just going to stand back and let this happen, and there’s no consequences to this great nation? This is the barometer of ‘We the People.’ Are we going to protect the most defenseless, or are we going to give platitudes?”
Treadwell agreed. “The ideal is that you have two innocent people in the case of rape,” he told onlookers. “And if we don’t remember that, we have a problem in this country.”
He added that the government needed to work to make adoption seen as a viable alternative.
Miller took the topic as an opportunity to challenge both Treadwell and Sullivan on their record in relation to an ill-fated “fetal personhood” initiative. The measure, authored by a fringe candidate and anti-abortion activist named Clinton DesJarlais in 2010, stated that the “natural right to life and body of the unborn child supercedes [sic] the statutory right of the mother to consent to the injury or death of her unborn child.” If enacted, it would have outlawed abortion in any and all circumstances.
The state’s Department of Law, under the direction of then-Attorney General Dan Sullivan, offered an opinion that the law would be “clearly unconstitutional.” Mead Treadwell, serving as lieutenant governor, declined to certify the initiative.
“[Treadwell and Sullivan] did not allow the pro-life initiative to go forth,” Miller said, reminding the audience that the Alaska State Constitution’s preamble guarantees a natural right to life. (Worth noting as a technicality, the preamble makes no such declaration. But Article I, Section 1 does, stating that “all persons have a natural right to life.”)
“My perspective is, if you take an oath to the Constitution, and you believe that the Constitution protects life, then you let that initiative go forth.”
“As attorney general, you have a very important issue of fidelity to the law,” Sullivan responded. “[W]e have a controlling decision that makes that not legal. Is that a hard decision to make? Yeah. Did I feel I had fidelity to the law? What I was supposed to do as attorney general? Yes. Sometimes there are difficult choices.”
Treadwell noted the conflicting nature present within Article I of the state constitution, with both a natural right to life (Section 1) and a right to privacy (Section 22). Referring to the personhood initiative, Treadwell said, “This one was written wrong and it had to be turned down.”
“You know, we’ve heard that argument before,” Miller rebutted. “I was just following orders.”
Possibly the largest round of applause of the afternoon ensued.
Nobody Expects the Same-Sex Imposition!
Adding further hellfire and brimstone editorial notes, Minnery turned to marriage equality:
Help us understand where our country is headed on the issue of God’s definition of marriage. We’ve seen federal court after federal court and state after state believing that the courts can undo what the people have voted to put in their constitutions, which is to define marriage the way everyone has always understood marriage: one man and one woman.
I’ll leave the question of legislative jurisdiction surrounding “God’s definition” of anything and the fallacy of “the way everyone has always understood marriage” for another day.
There weren’t many differing shades of opinion on the issue. Sullivan reiterated that Alaskans affirmed that definition in 1998, voting by a two-to-one ratio to constitutionally establish marriage as existing “only between one man and one woman,” and lending his support to such a definition. He said, naming President Obama and Sen. Begich, that “what they’re trying to do is say, ‘I’ve changed my view, I’m now going to force it on you.'”
I mean, why do you think we’re even talking about amnesty? Well, it’s because we don’t have enough people here to uphold our system. And the fact of it is, big business wants cheap labor because we aren’t producing[.]
In other words, we can’t have marriage equality because opposite-sex couples aren’t making enough babies, so we have to exploit cheap labor to fill the gaps. Because if we had more babies, they’d totally want to work at fish processing plants in Alaska or farm worker jobs in southern California for pay that clocks in well below the minimum wage. That totally checks out. Glad all of the nation’s orphanages are 100 percent vacant. When did that happen?
Miller said that activist judges presiding over federal courts sought to impose their pro-gay agenda on the citizenry, and then referenced Duck Dynasty patriarch, Phil Robertson. Robertson was suspended from his reality show briefly last year after comparing homosexuality to bestiality. Miller chalked up his return to the airwaves to the support of people protecting their religious liberty.
“This is a situation where the elites and the ruling class want to tell you how to think,” he said. “We need to push back.”
It was another area of agreement for Treadwell, who teed up a slippery slope in need of a top-tier toboggan:
“We have to stand up for religious freedom in this country. I consider marriage a sacrament of my church. There are other sacraments of my church. I don’t think the government should be regulating baptism either,” he said. “[T]his is something people hold closely in their hearts and their faith. And it’s not the government’s job to tell them that their faith is wrong.”
But apparently it is the government’s job to tell people their love is wrong.
And the Winner* is…
Miller repeatedly treated the GOP primary voters in attendance to a luxurious helping of red meat warranting limitless Bloomberg jokes about serving size restrictions. And they ate it up. He was the unabashed recipient of the largest applause lines, which broke out at the conclusion of almost every answer offered and grew exponentially over the hour and a half event. While Treadwell landed scattered zingers, they didn’t penetrate the exuberant revelry received by Miller.
Even though he remains the presumed front runner, Sullivan was notably on the wrong end of groans, boos, and a smattering of whispered retorts from the crowd. Despite the rush to the right that is inextricable from Republican primary politics, Miller’s hyper-partisan clamoring for extreme reactions to everything — from impeaching judges to outlawing abortion to deporting everyone to Jane-stop-this-crazy-thing — was the dose of populist outrage that social conservatives were craving.
So, he won the debate. And he could win the primary. Of course, then he’d have to face the general electorate. Miller has not, and doubtfully will, take a single step in the direction of the ideological center. That’s what he believes. That’s what his supporters demand.
*I’d imagine that’s what Begich is hoping for, too.
View the full event for yourself below.