ANCHORAGE — The message might have seemed gracious, on its face
“Thank you for your service, Sen. Murkowski,” Sarah Palin wrote on her Twitter account on Tuesday night after Senator Lisa Murkowski conceded to Joe Miller, the political novice Ms. Palin had endorsed in Alaska’s Republican primary. Yet in the same message, Ms. Palin had reveled in Mr. Miller’s stunning upset, writing, “Do you believe in miracles?”
It took Sarah Palin just four years to help dismantle the political empire the Murkowski family took three decades to build.
In 2006, she ousted Gov. Frank H. Murkowski from the governor’s office, embarrassing him by 30 points in a Republican primary. But the strange tango of tension between Ms. Palin and Ms. Murkowski, two very different women who proved unable to share the small stage that is Alaskan politics, predated even that defeat.
“I don’t understand it,” said John Bitney, who was a top adviser to Ms. Palin during her run in 2006 and worked as campaign manager for Ms. Murkowski this year. “The back-and-forths have been all out in the open. I don’t know what drives them.”
Mr. Bitney has been closer than most to both women, and he said their relationship, as far as he could tell, starts and stops in public, even as the history between them runs deep and personal.
“I wanted to avoid a race between Sarah and Lisa,” he said, referring to the Republican primary race that ended a week after the voting as the count dragged on. “It was going to raise issues that I didn’t want to have to deal with. I had hoped this would not be a story.”
Ms. Palin, always the more colorful of the two, mostly made the pages turn. After endorsing Mr. Miller in June, she said nothing more for months in public. Then, in the final days before the Aug. 24 primary, she lashed out at Ms. Murkowski in automated phone calls. She posted video clips of their campaign debates on Facebook and wrote that Ms. Murkowski, if re-elected, would be “another Democrat in the Senate voting for the Obama agenda which is bankrupting us.”
Ms. Murkowski, a moderate who often seems stiff in public, played uncharacteristically hard to conservative voters in the final weeks of the race, mocking the Obama administration as overreaching and irresponsible. But she stayed silent about the former governor until after the votes were cast.
“I think she’s out for her own self-interest,” the senator told The Anchorage Daily News the night of the primary, referring to Ms. Palin. “I don’t think she’s out for Alaska’s interest.”
Brought together by their positions at times, whether at annual luncheons at the governor’s mansion in Juneau or at meetings with aides in Washington, the women otherwise seem to have had little meaningful interaction.
“I think there were very few private moments,” said Andrew Halcro, a longtime friend of Ms. Murkowski who ran as an independent against Ms. Palin in 2006. “Most of the time, Lisa walked away with just an absolute surprise at how disengaged she was with Alaska and public policy concerning Alaska.”
Their political differences are sharp. Ms. Palin opposes abortion and argues loudly against taxes and federal spending; Ms. Murkowski supports abortion rights and once raised the idea of reinstating a state income tax for Alaska when she was a state lawmaker. She has long made conservatives uncomfortable.
“She’s definitely seen as way too left of the right, if you will,” Stephen Haycox, a historian here, said of Ms. Murkowski. “That’s a part of the reason why they never had a relationship. Palin made a lot of her political reputation on anti-abortion issues.”
Neither Ms. Murkowski nor Ms. Palin agreed to be interviewed.
They represent very different versions of Alaska. Ms. Palin grew up in Wasilla, where development dead-ends and some of the most remote places in America begin. Her father was a schoolteacher, but she earned only a bachelor’s degree after hopscotching from college to college.
Ms. Murkowski grew up in Fairbanks, graduated from Georgetown University and later earned a law degree. In a frontier state, her family counted as the establishment. She was a young woman when her father was elected to the Senate in 1980.
In many ways, the story of Ms. Palin and Ms. Murkowski begins with Frank Murkowski, well before Ms. Palin defeated him in 2006.
“Sarah,” said Rick Halford, a former State Senate president and an early supporter of Ms. Palin, “was not necessarily respectful to her father.”
Mr. Murkowski left the Senate in 2002, during his fourth term, to run for governor. At the time, the governor appointed replacements for vacant Senate seats. After Mr. Murkowski won the governor’s race, he interviewed several candidates to serve the remainder of his Senate term. Ms. Palin, who had been mayor of Wasilla and was viewed as a rising Republican star, was among those he interviewed, but he ended up appointing his daughter to fill his seat.
In her book, “Going Rogue,” Ms. Palin said Mr. Murkowski warned her repeatedly how hard it would be to care for children while working in the Senate.
“He then handed what was called the most coveted government job in the state to his daughter, Lisa, a mom with two young kids,” she wrote.
Ms. Palin wrote that she was disappointed “for about seven seconds,” but by 2004, when Ms. Murkowski ran for a full term, Ms. Palin endorsed a more conservative Republican in the primary, Mike Miller.
“It was first of all driven by the appointment and in many ways it was driven by their philosophical divide on social and economic issues,” Mr. Miller, a former State Senate president from North Pole, said in an interview. “They’re just people that are philosophically really not aligned, other than that they’re both Republicans.”
Many people expected Ms. Palin to run against Ms. Murkowski herself once 2010 arrived, but Ms. Palin made a point of saying she would not. Fresh off the newfound fame created by the 2008 presidential campaign, she created a political action committee and made a show of donating to Ms. Murkowski’s campaign in early 2009.
A few months later, Ms. Palin stunned the state by resigning. Ms. Murkowski, rarely confrontational, passed succinct judgment.
“I am deeply disappointed that the governor has decided to abandon the state and her constituents before her term has concluded,” she said.
By the following spring, Ms. Palin was backing Mr. Miller, an ally for several years, and she had reframed her initial support for Ms. Murkowski.
“With no one willing to challenge the political machine at the time, and amid rumors that I would challenge Lisa Murkowski for the U.S. Senate, SarahPAC contributed to Lisa’s campaign,” Ms. Palin wrote on Facebook in June. “As she and I discussed, this was an attempt to reassure the senator that I, as Alaska’s governor, had no intention of jumping into the race.”