In Alaska's Senate race, Murkowski's write-in bid bears fruit

A recap of election night highlights.
By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 4, 2010; 12:25 AM

First, she was the shoo-in. Then she was the underdog. Now, in the closing moments of a quirky midterm election season, Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) appeared to be on the verge of making history as the first successful write-in candidate for Senate in more than 50 years.

In a six-week blitz aimed at defeating the tea party-backed candidate who toppled her in the primary, Murkowski barnstormed the state, handing out bracelets and reminding voters how to spell her name. She rebuffed fellow Republicans who implored her to drop out. She seemed to be having fun.

By late Wednesday, with 99 percent of precincts reporting, Murkowski was presumed to be on the brink of reelection. That's because 41 percent of Alaska voters wrote in their choice for Senate, compared to 34 percent who voted for Republican nominee Joe Miller and 24 percent who voted for Democrat Scott McAdams, according to preliminary results. Final tallies likely won't be available for weeks.

A Murkowski victory would be a remarkable turnaround for an incumbent who had been disowned by her party, and signaled the limitations of novice tea party candidacies. Many of the movement's candidates have been skillful at pushing the GOP to the right and energizing primary voters. But some, like Miller, found greater difficulty appealing to a broader electorate this season. Lisa Murkowski's decision not to accept a primary defeat may be a lesson for other Republicans worried about insurgent attacks in the future. Not that mounting a winning write-in campaign for Senate is easy. No one has done it successfully since South Carolina's Strom Thurmond in 1954.

Alaska is vast of land but sparse of voters, a state where campaigning door-to-door can mean climbing into a puddle-jumper. It is known for its political dynasties and its family feuds, one of which, between the Murkowskis and the Palins, played out in this election. (Sarah Palin, who defeated Murkowski's father, Frank, for governor in 2006, was a big backer of Miller's campaign.)

"There is a very, very strong propensity to elect Republicans" in Alaska, said Ivan Moore, a pollster in the state whose clients include Republicans and Democrats. "But from an ideological standpoint, there is a very, very large moderate center up here. It was the centrists who elected Lisa yesterday because of Scott McAdams's inexperience and Joe Miller's loony-tunes, firebrand style of conservatism."

Not that Miller is conceding the race.

"With tens of thousands of absentee votes yet to be counted, and the disposition of the write-in ballots cast unknown, who will be Alaska's next United States senator is yet to be determined," spokesman Randy DeSoto wrote in an e-mail to The Washington Post. "We will all have to have some patience as we allow the Division of Elections to complete the ballot counting process."

Election officials in Alaska say they are still counting absentee ballots and have yet to develop a plan to start scrutinizing the write-in ballots. Once they begin, they will be studying the ballots for "voter intent," a subjective standard that will have attorneys from both sides hovering over the canvassers' shoulders. Depending on the closeness of the results, there could be lawsuits.

But Tuesday night, a beaming Murkowski all but declared victory at an election party in Anchorage.

"We are in the process of making history," she told a CNN reporter. "They said it couldn't be done . . . We looked at that and said, 'If it can be done anywhere, it can be done in Alaska.' "

Miller, meanwhile, kept a low profile on election night and has since. Though he was the front-runner for weeks, his public approval rating took a nose dive after it emerged that, while working for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, he used a government computer for political purposes and lied about it. In addition, he earned ridicule after his private security guards handcuffed a reporter who sought to question him at a campaign event.

As Senate races go, this one was among the stranger stories of 2010. Murkowski, a one-term senator, was one of those establishment-blessed candidates who was expected to cruise to victory. But she was caught off guard by the tea party, whose activists were bent on rattling the sense of entitlement they felt so many in power held.

In August, Miller, a politically inexperienced attorney from Fairbanks, surged to a surprise win in the primary with the help of tea party voters. He had the backing of the Tea Party Express, which poured $500,000 into his campaign, and the endorsement of former governor Palin, a personal friend whose enmity with the Murkowski family is legendary in Alaska politics.

(Frank Murkowski, a former U.S. senator, had considered appointing Palin to fill out his Senate term when he was elected governor. Instead, he picked his daughter.)

Like other Republicans who fell victim to the tea party's wrath, such as Sen. Robert F. Bennett in Utah and Sen. Mike Castle in Delaware, Murkowski initially conceded to allow Miller a clear shot at the seat. Weeks later, though, she changed her mind and decided to wage what even many of her supporters believed was a quixotic campaign - in part because of the challenge of persuading voters to bypass the multiple-choice ballot and pencil in a long and difficult-to-spell name.

To solve that problem, Murkowski focused enormous attention on her name in advertisements and public appearances. In one of the more absurd turns in the race, Murkowski spelled her own name wrong in a television ad meant to encourage people to write it in at the ballot box.

This is how she and Strom Thurmond became linked forever. When Thurmond mounted his successful Senate write-in campaign, he was a former governor who had returned to the private sector to practice law and entered the race to succeed Burnet R. Maybank, a Democrat, who had died in office.

Now, Murkowski is hoping to return to Washington as the first-ever sitting senator to win reelection by write-in ballot.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company