Murkowski pulls ahead in undecided Alaska race
Tuesday, November 16, 2010; 7:54 PM
Sen. Lisa Murkowski has pulled ahead in Alaska's still-undecided Senate race, putting opponent Joe Miller in a tight spot as he contemplates mounting a legal challenge that could drag out the contest for weeks or months.
With about 8,000 ballots left to count Monday night, Murkowski held a 1,700-vote advantage over the tea-party-backed lawyer who beat her in the Republican primary. Although narrow, the lead is commanding enough that Murkowski's campaign thinks it can win despite Miller's efforts to have thousands of ballots disqualified.
"If the [trend] proceeds as it has for the past five days, Lisa stands to win the race, even accounting for Joe Miller's challenges," campaign manager Kevin Sweeney said in a statement. "And when that happens, we expect him to concede this race as he has indicated he would."
Officials were to begin counting the remaining votes on Tuesday at 3:30 p.m. Eastern time and are expected to continue through Wednesday.
As Miller contemplates his next steps, he must balance the demands of many of his staunch backers - who have been contributing tens of thousands of dollars to his legal fund - against the possibility of sparking a backlash if he jumps into an ugly and costly court battle.
In interviews, Miller has indicated that he will not fight in court if he has no chance of winning.
"Obviously, if the numbers of the challenged ballots don't add up, we aren't going to sit back and continue to contest this," he said in an interview on ABC's "Top Line" last week.
Still, he has shown no signs of backing down. He has argued in court that thousands of ballots on which Murkowski's name is misspelled should be thrown out. He has asked for access to election registers to compare the number of voters to the number of ballots cast in certain precincts. His campaign has also alleged widespread voter fraud, though it has provided little evidence to support the claims.
Miller and his backers have sought donations to fund his legal challenges. He received a contribution from former Alaska governor Sarah Palin's political action committee as well as about $150,000 from the Senate Conservatives Fund, chaired by Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
"Joe Miller can win this race, but he's up against a well-financed legal team that is working for Lisa Murkowski," said a statement on the political action committee's Web site soliciting donations. "They will be fighting to bend the law in Alaska, which requires write-in ballots to accurately state the candidate's name."
State officials have said that minor misspellings are allowed as long as the voter's intent is clear. But Miller has argued that the law requires Murkowski's name to be spelled accurately. In anticipation of a legal challenge, elections officials in Alaska have set aside nearly 10,000 ballots - or about 10 percent of the write-ins - that the Miller campaign had flagged as problematic. Elections officials deemed about 7,000 of those legitimate and counted them for Murkowski.
Miller's campaign thinks it may still be able to win if the challenged ballots are thrown out.
"The race is far from over," Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said in a statement late Monday. "The issue that is vital to this election is whether the rule of law will apply to these challenged ballots or some arbitrary, ever-changing standard."
If Miller's court challenge on the spelling issue is successful, it is unlikely that all 10,000 contested ballots will be thrown out. The campaign has also noted that hundreds more absentee ballots could arrive before the Wednesday deadline, many of them from overseas service members, and that Miller - a former Army officer - could benefit from most of those.