JUNEAU, Alaska — Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday became the first Senate candidate in more than 50 years to win a write-in campaign, emerging victorious over her tea party rival following a painstaking, week-long count of hand-written votes.
The victory completes a remarkable comeback for the Republican after her humiliating loss in the GOP primary to Joe Miller.
Her victory became clear when Alaska election officials confirmed they had only about 700 votes left to count, putting Murkowski in safe territory to win re-election. Murkowski is flying back from Washington to Alaska on Wednesday to make an “exciting announcement,” proclaiming in an e-mail to supporters that the campaign “made history.”
Murkowski has a lead of about 10,000 votes, a total that includes 8,153 ballots in which Miller observers challenged over things like misspellings, extra words or legibility issues.
It was not immediately clear how Miller will proceed. He and his advisers have vowed to take legal action over what they contend is an unfair tally in Murkowski’s favor, but Miller has maintained he’ll stop fighting if the math doesn’t work in his favor. Miller’s campaign didn’t immediately return a message seeking comment.
Miller’s loss is a major rebuke for Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate who backed Miller and has long had a tense relationship with the Murkowski family. Miller’s defeat means Palin couldn’t deliver in her home state for a candidate she roundly endorsed.
The write-in bid was an effort Murkowski almost didn’t undertake after her stunning loss in the August primary to Miller. She went back and forth on whether to run but ultimately decided to wage a write-in campaign, saying she’d been encouraged by Alaskans who wanted a reasonable alternative between the conservative Miller and the little-known Democratic nominee.
Murkowski will return to Washington in an odd position in the Republican Party. The National Republican Senatorial Committee threw its support and cash behind Miller, opting to back the candidate who received the GOP nomination. And she has never had many friends within the tea party movement, putting her at odds with that faction of the party as well.
Though she plans to caucus with Republicans, she said she won’t be beholden to any special interests or party – an initial sign that she may not try to reclaim her leadership post within the GOP conference. She voluntarily resigned it in deciding to make her outsider run.
Murkowski says she will approach issues as they come to her, and vowed to do what’s best for Alaskans. She opposed a Republican-supported moratorium on earmark requests, a hot issue on Capitol Hill following the tea party surge in the mid-term elections.
The victory followed the tedious process of ballot counters and observers scrutinizing the handwriting of thousands of ballots.
It was a process unlike any Alaska had seen, with the rules for conducting the election written as the race went on. That provided the crux of Miller’s complaint – that the determination of votes was subjective and not strictly in line with election law.
Miller observers objected to thousands of ballots, including ones with a cursive letter or two, some reading “Lisa Murkowski Republican” and others with “Murkowski, Lisa.”
The longshot nature of Murkowski’s campaign seemed to invigorate the senator and her team. Her spokesman, Steve Wackowski, said he liked nothing more than hearing it couldn’t be done – that that only made the campaign work harder in what amounted to a massive do-over after she flubbed the primary contest.
History wasn’t on their side: Nothing of this scale had been pulled off in Alaska, and had rarely been accomplished elsewhere. The last Senate candidate to win as a write-in was Strom Thurmond in 1954.
But Murkowski wasn’t the typical write-in candidate: She enjoyed widespread name recognition as Alaska’s senior senator and daughter of a local political dynasty, and had a $1 million-plus bank account.
She also showed a fire she’d lacked during the primary, when she referred to Miller as “my opponent” and fell victim to aggressive last-minute attack ads by the Tea Party Express.
This time, she pounced on Miller’s every misstep. While she still stressed her seniority and her willingness to be a voice for all Alaskans, her speeches sounded more like rallies than lectures, generally ending in her leading a raucous chorus of supporters in spelling her name: “M-U-R, K-O-W, S-K-I.”
“She just had a fire in her belly to do this not for herself but for the large number of people, literally hundreds, who begged her to do this,” said John Tracy, who worked on her ad team.
Miller didn’t do himself any favors after his upset of Murkowski in the August primary. Court documents were released showing Miller was suspended as a government employee for using work computers for partisan political work and lying about it. In other miscues, his security detail handcuffed a journalist asking questions at a town hall meeting, and it was revealed his family received many government handouts that he railed against as a tea party candidate.
Murkowski, 53, was appointed to the Senate seat long held by her father when he became governor in 2002; she won the seat in her own right two years later, in a narrow win over Democrat Tony Knowles, and her father was ousted in the 2006 gubernatorial primary by Palin, contributing to the icy relationship between the two families.