U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski is battling for her political life this morning against Republican primary challenger Joe Miller, the tea party-backed candidate who has a slim lead as ballots continue to be counted.
Miller, a Fairbanks attorney, led from when the first returns came in Tuesday night and was on the verge of pulling off one of the biggest election upsets ever in Alaska.
With 429 of 438 precincts counted this morning,, Miller had 45,909 votes (51 percent) to 43,949 (49 percent) for Murkowski.
Miller credited the support of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin for his lead.
"I'm absolutely certain that was pivotal," he said.
Murkowski on Tuesday night took a shot at Palin, saying that when Palin resigned as governor last summer she said she would use her new national role to help out Alaska.
"I think she's out for her own self-interest. I don't think she's out for Alaska's interest," Murkowski said as she waited at her campaign headquarters for results to come in.
Miller made a triumphant entrance to election central at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage on Tuesday night, surrounded by loudly cheering supporters with red-white-and-blue balloons.
"We did it!" one shouted.
Murkowski didn't come to election central, the traditional celebratory venue for Alaska candidates. She stayed in her campaign headquarters in Midtown Anchorage to watch the returns come in.
Her campaign spokesman, Steve Wackowski, was holding out hope that she would benefit from support in rural and coastal areas of the state that hadn't yet reported.
"We knew the race was going to be tight. The rural areas have yet to come in and we know Sen. Murkowski is going to be very strong in the rural areas."
Most of the remaining precincts are in rural areas, where paper ballots are counted by hand.
The final results of the race won't be known for over a week. The Alaska Division of Elections said over 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and as of Monday night 7,600 had been returned. The first count of absentees will be next Tuesday and there will be two subsequent counts as the absentee votes trickle in on Sept. 3 and on Sept. 8.
The winner of the Murkowski-Miller race will face Democrat Scott McAdams in the November general election. McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, had a big lead in the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate Tuesday night against Frank Vondersaar and Jacob Seth Kern.
Palin and the Tea Party Express made a big push to convince Alaskans to dump Murkowski for Miller. Polls had shown Murkowski with a big lead just three weeks ago. But Miller supporters had thought it was narrowing and were expressing confidence earlier in the day Tuesday that they would be pulling off an upset.
This was the first test of Palin's influence on Alaska politics since she resigned as governor last summer, and the first sign of how influential the Tea Party movement can be in shaping political races in this state. The race was being closely watched nationally as a sign of Palin and the Tea Party's strength, but also because Murkowski is one of the leading Republicans in the Senate.
There was a lot more going on in this race than the Tea Party and Palin, though. Anti-Palin Alaska Republicans were arguing that voters should hold their nose and vote for Miller in spite of the endorsement of the former governor. Elements of Alaska's right wing have always disliked Murkowski.
Murkowski's pro-choice stance is a particularly sore point, one that Miller supporters hammered her on.
Tuesday's primary election also included Ballot Measure 2, which would require parents to be notified before their teens age 17 and younger received an abortion. Miller said he thinks that brought out voters who supported him over Murkowski, even though she supported the ballot measure as well.
"The Prop. 2 supporters were our supporters, largely. ... Frankly I think the pro-life vote was important," Miller said on Tuesday night.
Murkowski was a moderate state legislator when she was appointed by her father, Frank Murkowski, in 2002 to the U.S. Senate seat he was giving up to become governor.
The theme of a royal dynasty was also a part of the Miller campaign against her.
Murkowski told voters that her seniority and position in the Senate is good for Alaska. She's a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and the most senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. Murkowski described Ted Stevens as her Senate mentor. She was much a part of the huge outpouring of reverence for Stevens in Alaska after he died in a plane crash earlier this month.
Stevens made radio and television ads for Murkowski just about a week before his death. The Murkowski campaign had also planned print advertising featuring Stevens' support. But the planned ad campaign with Stevens never ran. The Murkowski campaign dropped it after Stevens's death.
"It was the respectful thing to do," Murkowski said.
Alaskans adored Stevens for his talent in delivering Congressional dollars to Alaska. Federal dollars play a huge role in driving the economy, especially in rural areas that have few jobs.
Miller was running on a platform that's never before been a winning strategy for an Alaskan running for Congress. He promised to help choke federal spending rather than deliver the dollars back home.
Miller said his message resonated with Alaska voters.
"I think that they see the entitlement state, the federal government, growing too large. They understand because they have to balance their checkbooks," Miller said.
The California-based Tea Party Express reported spending $600,000 on behalf of Miller with ads that labeled Murkowski a liberal who is prone to voting with the Democrats.
Voters were getting robocalls until the last minute from Palin, former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, and former Alaska Lt. Gov. Loren Leman, saying the country is in crisis and Miller is the man to straighten it out. Those calls were financed by Miller, who raised $180,000 for his campaign.
Miller leaned heavily on his resume: a West Point and Yale law school graduate who won a Bronze star in the first Gulf War and was a magistrate. He's currently an attorney in Fairbanks and had almost no statewide name recognition until Palin, whose husband is a friend of Miller's, got on board his candidacy and attracted the attention of the national Tea Party Express.
Murkowski criticized Miller's campaign tactics, including the use of robo-calls. "It doesn't feel like it was a campaign that was run by Alaskans," Murkowski said on Tuesday night.
Murkowski also spent heavily, sinking well over $1.4 million into the race. She ran ads touting her conservative bona fides and bashing the Obama administration. Murkowski called Miller a liar, saying his insistence that she didn't want to repeal the federal health care reform act ignored the fact she's participated in Congressional efforts to do so.
Long before the first ballot results appeared Tuesday, Miller stood at the corner of Northern Lights Boulevard and the Seward Highway, waving one of his campaign signs as a cacophony of horns blared around him.
The campaign and his message, he said, had been gaining sudden momentum lately. "I think it's going to surprise a lot of folks."
The Tea Party Express less than a month ago commissioned a poll by Dittman Research of Anchorage that found Murkowski with 61 percent of the vote, compared to 24 percent for Miller. The Tea Party group put out a new poll less than a week ago suggesting the race had tightened, but that Murkowski still led by 11 percentage points.
Dittman said Tuesday night that he was surprised that Miller was leading. He said he thought it would be close but that Murkowski had the edge.
Dittman said he thought the final advertising blitz by the Tea Party Express made the difference. He said the California based Tea Party group, which has had success in Lower 48 Republican primary races, made a huge difference in the Alaska race.
"Without the Tea Party we wouldn't even be talking about him," Dittman said.