Alaska Sen. Murkowski embraces new outsider status with write-in campaign
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 6:53 PM
IN ANCHORAGE "Fill in the bubble! Write in the name! Fill in the bubble! Write in the name! Fill in the bubble! Write in the name!"
So the chant went at a rally for Alaska Republican Lisa Murkowski outside the public library here on a brisk recent Sunday - the soundtrack to one of the more striking and peculiar dramas of this year's fluky election season: the write-in campaign of a sitting U.S. senator.
After her loss in an August primary to tea-party-backed lawyer Joe Miller, Murkowski's senate career was assumed to be over. Another head-in-the-sand incumbent who just didn't get it.
But then, against all advice, including from fellow Republicans, Murkowski decided that she did get it - and was willing to fight for it.
Now, despite the hurdles in the way of a write-in victory, Murkowski is stirring passion and energy. It helps that the "entrenched incumbent" is suddenly the underdog, turning the year's throw-the-bums-out theme on its head. If she succeeds, Murkowski will join Miller, of all people, as one of the year's unlikeliest winners.
"It's kind of fun," Murkowski said during a recent campaign trip down Alaska's majestic Kenai Peninsula, where she went from a senior center to a cocktail reception to a firefighters convention with the urgency of a long shot. "It's fun to be turning the tables on your primary opponent, who was making such a big deal about how he is running against the establishment, and now he has been embraced by the establishment. I've been kind of booted off, and we're now the insurgency."
It's true that Miller beat Murkowski in part by portraying her as a Washington insider with a too-liberal record who felt entitled to her position - a job she was originally appointed to in 2002 by her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski. It's also true that national Republicans discouraged her from mounting the write-in bid and have pledged their support for Miller.
But it's strange that a Murkowski in Alaska could be an underdog. And it's just as odd to characterize her campaign as an insurgency - a campaign that during the primary held a 10-to-1 cash advantage, that is gathering election lawyers and strategists in preparation for a contentious ballot count, that is busy honing the message that this unusual mission belongs to the people and exists solely to "put Alaska first."
In any event, the "insurgency" is surging. Murkowski, tall and reserved, has bounced back from her defeat with a ferocity that's almost out of character, reminding voters why they like her: She listens intently, she understands Alaskan issues - fishing, infrastructure needs, energy - and she is a native, born in Ketchikan, raised in Fairbanks. According to several recent polls, the effort is paying off; Murkowski is either within striking distance of Miller or in a dead heat with him.
"I was heartbroken when she conceded to Joe Miller," said Elizabeth Koutchak, 45, a native Alaskan of Inupiat and Tlingit heritage. Koutchak began volunteering for Murkowski three weeks ago after never before being politically active. "My heart went from broken to high spirits when she announced the write-in campaign. I said, 'Lisa, this hard-working truck driver supports you.'"
Koutchak was among hundreds of supporters who sang, danced, chanted and waved signs at the Anchorage rally. The steady flow of passing drivers joined in, honking their horns.
But while Murkowski has inspired supporters to make plenty of noise, the more pressing question is whether she can get them to color and spell.