ANCHORAGE, Alaska — As Sen. Lisa Murkowski struggles with the biggest decision of her political career, the pressure is on from many supporters who want her to run a write-in campaign -- and some of the loudest voices are coming from rural Alaska.
Challenger Joe Miller's upset of Murkowski in the Republican U.S. Senate primary wasn't just Alaska news. National networks discussed how it would affect national politics, but little was said about the impact on Alaskans most affected by the loss of Murkowski's seniority.
In remote communities like Napaskiak, however, it's a different story.
"I don't know what's going to happen to the State of Alaska," said Joe Evon, a special education teaching assistant in Napaskiak.
"She did bring lots of attention to our village -- not just our village, but other villages too," said Napaskiak voter Sharon Williams.
Napaskiak just celebrated the completion of its water and sewer system with honey-bucket relay races -- only the kids ran with pails of water instead of sewage. The project brought basic sanitation to Napaskiak, but it wouldn't happen in rural Alaska without lots of government cash.
Miller campaigned hard on cutting federal spending, proposing radical reforms like phasing out the Department of Education and Social Security.
"Alaska made its bed; we better damned well be prepared to sleep in it," said Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. CEO Gene Peltola.
Federal money is the bedrock of rural Alaska's economy. The late Sen. Ted Stevens laid the foundation over his decades in the Senate, and Murkowski was able to keep steering money to rural programs from her seat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Her growing seniority in the Republican leadership also helped Alaska causes, as well as her teamwork with Alaska's junior senator, Mark Begich.
"We in Alaska, especially rural Alaska, were coming down the creek with two paddles -- now we're coming down the creek with one paddle," Peltola said.
Miller, now the Republican nominee, has stood by his position throughout the Senate campaign, including a CBS News interview with the network's Bob Scheiffer.
"You've said we can't afford all that federal money that's pouring into Alaska. Should Alaska get less money from the federal government?" Scheiffer asked.
"The government is going bankrupt -- I don't think anybody can deny it, sitting in at $13.3 trillion," Miller responded.
Miller says rural Alaskans need not be alarmed by his positions on federal spending.
"Now does that mean you elect Joe Miller and federal funding goes away? Of course not -- I'm going to continue to fight for the state with all I've got," Miller said.
But many in rural Alaska are skeptical. They point to some of Miller's supporters in Washington, D.C., like South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint.
"Ted Stevens, bless his heart: Alaskan of the Century for bringing home the bacon," DeMint said at a board meeting of the National Federation of Republican Women. "For years he's been taking money from your states and sending them to Alaska, and that's what he thought he was supposed to do."
Like it or not, federal funds account for about a third of Alaska's economy.
"I think it's really, really critical to have her in the Senate, fighting on our behalf," said Gail Schubert, CEO of Nome-based Bering Strait Corp.
Despite Miller's promises to fight for Alaska's share of federal money, Schubert hopes Murkowski will run as a write-in candidate.
"I think it's very difficult to be a proponent of cutting federal money and leaving one state untouched, because if there is an effort to cut federal funding it will pretty much have to be across the board," Schubert said.
Miller says he will work towards freeing up more federal land for resource development, which will provide long-term economic security for the state.
"We must be prepared, because the day is coming when the state will no longer receive out of the bankruptcy crisis what it used to get," Miller said. "OK: so we have to develop within the state the ability to survive."
"In any campaign, candidates say things that they later to have to elaborate on, correct, whatever you want to call it," said John MacKinnon, executive director of the Association of General Contractors of Alaska. "And I think Joe Miller is in that process: he said things in the campaign he had to clarify. What does 'less federal spending' mean?"
MacKinnon also holds a seat on the Denali Commission, created by Stevens to bring infrastructure -- and jobs -- to rural Alaska.
"The president has in his budget a little under $12 million for it -- the balance has to be inserted through the appropriations process, and key to that is a position on Appropriations," MacKinnon said.
Murkowski's position on the Appropriations Committee could mean millions more for the Denali Commission and other Alaska programs -- especially if Republicans regain control of the Senate in November.
"Right now, she's the ranking member on the Energy Committee, so she would logically move in to be chairman of the Energy Committee -- and of course, anyone that doesn't think that's an important piece of Alaska, they're wrong," MacKinnon said.
It was only six years ago that voters in Western Alaska cast a majority of their ballots for Murkowski's opponent in the 2004 election, former Gov. Tony Knowles -- but since then, they've had a change of heart.
"Sen. Murkowski, to me, she never sought out the camera for her own gain; she always seemed to put Alaskan issues first, and I think that's what Alaskans really love about her," said Dan Winkleman, vice president of Yukon Kuskokwim Health Corp.
"Lisa Murkowski has been able to be balanced in her approach to dealing with issues that affect Alaska, and that's critically important," said Sheri Buretta, board chair of Chugach Alaska Corp. and a member of the Denali Commission.
But that balance and Murkowski's moderate brand of conservatism were rejected in the Republican primary.
"And so rural Alaska shouldn't look at Joe Miller and say, 'The sky is falling,' because that's not the case," Miller said.
Miller says he's planning to campaign heavily in rural Alaska to get to know the people and the issues. He says he hopes people will help to educate him on their concerns, but that he learned a lot about rural issues when he served in Tok as a magistrate.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org