(UPDATED) Lisa Murkowski: From Establishment to Outsider in the Alaska Race

BlogHer Original Post

Alaska Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski has no business being an outsider, write-in candidate fighting to be re-elected.

ANCHORAGE, AK - NOVEMBER 01: U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), thanks her supporters at her campaign headquarters on November 1, 2010 in Anchorage, Alaska. Murkowski is defending her Senate seat as a write-in candidate in a tight three-way race, after losing the Republican primary to Tea Party favorite Joe Miller in August. If Murkowski wins, it would be the first time a write-in candidate has won a Senate seat since Strom Thurmond in 1954. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)

In 2009, Murkowski was sitting pretty. According to the Anchorage Daily News, she secured former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens' seat on the powerful Appropriations Committee where she could direct millions of dollars in projects to her home state and "get all the credit." She also wielded influence on the important Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and had a reputation of reaching across the aisle to work with Democrats.

With a substantial campaign war chest, position in GOP leadership and no serious Democrat opposition, Murkowski seemed untouchable -- a slam dunk re-election in 2010. But she made a colossal strategic mistake, which has her fighting for her political life. She misread the political mood of her constituents and underestimated the Tea Party movement. During the Republican primary, she barely touched her $2 million in campaign cash and allowed opponent Joe Miller, a Fairbanks attorney, to define her as a pro-TARP (Troubled Asset Relief Program), pro-abortion liberal who was a collaborator in an "out-of-control" Washington, D.C. As a result, the once powerful Senator found herself conceding to Miller, the Tea Party and Sarah Palin favorite.

Murkowski's loss was called one of the "biggest political upsets" of the year. She was the second Republican incumbent Senator to lose in the primary. Utah Senator Bob Bennett was the first. 

Murkowski said in her concession speech, "I'm coming back home. You all know that my heart and soul has always been in Alaska."  But Washington and the U.S. Senate is where her ambition lies.  Less than three weeks after her concession speech, Murkowski announced she would launch a write-in campaign in order to hold her seat.

Murkowski, a former state legislator, has served in the U.S. Senate since 2002 when her father, Senator Frank Murkowski, appointed her to replace him after he won his election for Governor of Alaska. In 2006, the elder Murkowski lost his re-election bid in a three-way primary with then Mayor of Wasilla Sarah Palin. With a 14 percent approval rating, Governor Murkowski left office with the lowest approval rating of any Governor in Alaskan history. Daughter Lisa fared better, having won her Senate election in 2004.

On November 2, Alaska voters will choose between Republican candidate Joe Miller and Democrat candidate Scott McAdams, the Mayor of Sitka; or they can write in Lisa Murkowski's name. If Murkowski were to win, it would be the first time since Strom Thurmond did it in 1954 that a candidate would win a write-in election.

Polls have been all over the place but most show Miller slightly ahead of Murkowski and McAdams. Real Clear Politics has the Senate seat as "leans Republican." If Republicans are to take control of the Senate, they must retain this seat. McAdams and the Democrats are hoping that Miller and Murkowski split the conservative vote, which would give McAdams a plurality and thus a victory.

In order for Murkowski to win she will have to peel off votes from both Democrats and Republicans. And that will be tough because right now she isn't spending as much time talking about the issues as she is about educating voters on the process of how to write-in a candidate and, perhaps more importantly, how to spell her name. 

If Murkowski were to pull off the improbable, initially she planned to remain a Republican but now makes no guarantees. The Wall Street Journal writes that Murkowski "told CNN’s Drew Griffin that the outsider campaign she’s mounted after losing the GOP primary in August will make her a different senator if she wins. She calls her break with the GOP 'really very liberating.'"

Murkowski's break with the GOP may very well be "liberating" but it was her perceived break with voters that may leave her unemployed.

UPDATE: The New Republic has an interesting story on Murkowski's campaign strategy and her "diversity coalition."

Members of the diversity coalition have produced voting guides in Russian, Gambian, Hmong, and Tagalog, among other languages, to promote Murkowski among the state’s many ethnic groups. Murkowski and her husband, Verne Martell, have appeared on local Telemundo programming. And her outreach goes further: After El Tango, she swaps her fleece for a black satin jacket to make appearances at a NAACP dinner and a silent auction for the Abused Women's Aid in Crisis (AWAIC), where she courted some moderate Democratic supporters.

UPDATE 2: The Wall Street Journal reports that it could be a long night waiting for results from the Alaska senate race. In fact, Alaskans may not know the winner for several weeks:

The winner of Alaska's Senate race might not be known for weeks, as election officials wrestle with complications created by incumbent Lisa Murkowski's write-in effort as well as thousands of absentee ballots.

Murkowski may be wishing that penmanship was still taught in school.

UPDATE 3: With 99 percent of the ballots tallied, it appears that a "write-in" candidate will be the next senator from Alaska having secured 81,876 votes (41 percent). But which write-in candidate has yet to be determined. The Fairbanks Daily News-Miner explains:

We don't know yet what name was written on the line next to the oval of each ballot. Most of the write-in votes are for Sen. Lisa Murkowski.  But some are going to be for Mickey Mouse and other characters not on the ballot.  And the senator's name will be spelled wrong on some ballots.

So far, the numbers look good for Murkowski, who may have pulled off an improbable victory. Tea Party favorite Republican Joe Miller received 68,288 votes (34.2 percent). Democrat Scott McAdams came in a distant third with 47,414 (23.7 percent).

UPDATE 4: Just reported on Fox News, Scott McAdams has "dropped out," which is understandable since he was in third place. Joe Miller says the process of verifying all the write in names will continue. 

UPDATE 5: KTUU Channel 2 in Anchorage reports that Scott McAdams conceded the senate race to both Murkowski and Miller. "I'd like to congratulate both Lisa and Joe on motivating their bases, running hard in this campaign and I wish them best of luck in their futures," he said. 

Meanwhile Alaska's Division of Elections is preparing to count thousands of write-in ballots. The final count won't be official until November 17.

UPDATE 6: Since November 3, I've received more than 50 "Google alerts" for Lisa Murkowski.  Clearly, people are interested in this race.  While it may appear that Murkowski is, once again, sitting pretty with her "write-in" victory. This race won't be over until all the votes are counted.  First, not all the "write-in" votes will be for Murkowski.  Alaska had 160 possible write-in candidates. Second, a certain percentage will be thrown out for not being legible or various other reasons. Third, more than 26,000 absentee ballots still must be counted. 

The counting starts this week. Look for updates as news breaks.