alaska's senate race

Murkowski may make write-in history

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), embraced by sons Matt, left, and Nick and longtime friend Hope Nelson, celebrated Tuesday night in Anchorage as returns came in showing that write-in votes were ahead in the campaign for her Senate seat.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska), embraced by sons Matt, left, and Nick and longtime friend Hope Nelson, celebrated Tuesday night in Anchorage as returns came in showing that write-in votes were ahead in the campaign for her Senate seat. (Michael Dinneen)

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By Sandhya Somashekhar
Thursday, November 4, 2010

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) appears 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 with 34 percent who voted for Republican nominee Joe Miller and 24 percent who voted for Democrat Scott McAdams, according to preliminary results. Final tallies are not likely be available for weeks.

A Murkowski victory would be a remarkable turnaround for an incumbent who had been disowned by her party, and signal 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. 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 tallying absentee ballots and have yet to develop a plan to start scrutinizing the write-in votes. Once they begin, they will be studying the ballots for "voter intent," a subjective standard that will have lawyers 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.' "


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