With the slogan "Let's Make History," Lisa Murkowski announced Friday that she'd pursue a write-in bid to keep her seat in the U.S. Senate after losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller.
The decision is a historic gamble for Murkowski, who was joined by hundreds of supporters waving red-and-blue "Lisa for Senate" signs and chanting "Run, Lisa, Run!" in the Dena'ina Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage.
No one has run a successful write-in campaign for the U.S. Senate since Strom Thurmond in 1954.
Murkowski said she knows she faces a massive undertaking, not only to convince voters to support her but also to educate them on what they need to do for their vote to count. She acknowledged she made mistakes in her campaign, chief among them her failure to hit back when Miller and the Tea Party Express attacked her.
"Well, ladies and gentlemen, friends and supporters, the gloves are off and I'm fighting for Alaska," Murkowski said. "Alaskans deserve a fighter in the United States Senate who will always stand up for Alaska, who understands our great potential, who has the experience, respect and seniority to accomplish that. I am that senator."
It was clear that Murkowski won't have the support of state and national Republican leaders. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he told her she no longer has his support to serve in the Senate Republican leadership ranks, and accepted her resignation from that role. Alaska Republican Party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said "she will receive no support of any kind from the Alaska Republican Party."
"Lisa has chosen to run against the Republican Party and its primary voters. We will treat her candidacy as we would anyone who chooses to oppose our party's nominees, Ruedrich said.
Former Gov. Sarah Palin, whose support for Miller drove hundreds of thousands of dollars in donations from the Tea Party Express his way, called Murkowski's effort futile. Murkowski offered a response to Palin, who resigned as governor last year, and to others she described as "naysayers" in Washington D.C.
"Perhaps it's one time they met one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska," Murkowski said, receiving a huge standing ovation from her supporters.
UNCERTAIN THURSDAY NIGHT
Murkowski said she agonized over the decision to run as a write-in and that, as of Thursday night, she still didn't know if she was going to do it. She said she kept hearing from Alaskans who felt they couldn't vote for either Miller or the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate seat, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams.
"They told me that we cannot accept the extremist views of Joe Miller," she said. "We can't accept those views and, equally, we can't accept the inexperience of Mr. McAdams," she said.
Miller called a news conference for early Friday evening to speak to Alaska media about Murkowski's announcement, but then moved it back, after Murkowski delayed her announcement. He appeared on the Greta Van Susteren show on Fox News and then addressed the media and supporters after 10 p.m., calling on Murkowski backers and Democrats to join his campaign, which he described as being about getting control of the state's resources from the federal government.
Miller said on the Fox show, according to a transcript, that Murkowski is not a person of character, saying she went back on her word on the Friday before the primary election that she'd respect the will of primary voters. He also told Van Susteren that, after the primary, Murkowski left him a "nasty voice mail."
Murkowski acknowledged that she had said at a Kenai debate before the primary that she'd respect the electorate and support the winner.
"I regret that statement. I regret that I made that statement. It was made before I became aware of the last-minute mudslinging, the name-calling, the outright fabrications and lies," Murkowski said in her Friday speech announcing her candidacy.
McAdams said Murkowski's calling him inexperienced ignores his time as an elected official on the school board in Sitka and as the mayor. He said Murkowski's entrance makes it a "wide open" race for Alaska's U.S. Senate seat.
"In a three-way race. I don't think any one person could be deemed the heir apparent," McAdams said.
Murkowski on Friday frequently invoked former Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens, who served for 40 years as a senator and died last month in a plane crash. Taking the stage, Murkowski said she wished Stevens could have attended the rally Friday night.
"This is Alaska, where we come together, and we embrace one another for who we are, not because we may share the same political label but because of who we are and what we contribute to our state," Murkowski said. "This is what makes Alaska great, not our political labels."
Murkowski supporters who took the podium before she spoke included Albert Kookesh, a Democratic state senator from Angoon. Kookesh is the board chair of Sealaska, the Southeast Alaska Native Corp. that has a controversial lands bill in Congress sponsored by Murkowski. Kookesh is also the co-chair of the Alaska Federation of Natives, and said the AFN board nearly unanimously "begged" Murkowski to stay in the race. "The Alaska Native community will be there for her, along with you," Kookesh told her supporters.
Other speakers who praised Murkowski included the executive director of the Associated General Contractors, who stressed the importance of federal funding to the state, the president of the Alaska teacher's union and the head of the Anchorage police officer's union.
Byron Mallott, former CEO of the First Alaskans Institute, Sealaska board member and former head of the Alaska Permanent Fund Corp., was introduced as the co-chair of her campaign. Mallott said, "I've been nominally a Democrat, but I've always voted for whom I consider the best person for office."
Mallot, who is also a former mayor of Juneau, called the Republican primary an "aberration" and said Murkowski has earned the respect of a broad cross-section of the state.
Murkowski will be boosted by the $1 million reported left in her campaign account. She told her supporters that a write-in campaign was not a futile effort, citing a friend who told her there was no word for "impossible" in the Aleut language. And yes, Murkowski said, "you're going to have to learn to spell my name."
"They tell us this is impossible, you cannot do it," Murkowski said. "Alaskans can't figure out how to fill in an oval and spell M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I?"
In order for Murkowski votes to count in the November general election, voters will have to both write her name on to the ballot and fill in the bubble next to her name. Alaska Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai has said that voters would not necessarily have to spell Murkowski's name exactly correct, however. She said "if I am able to determine the voter's intent, then the ballot would be counted accordingly."
Anchorage Republican pollster and political consultant David Dittman said Murkowski is taking a big risk and he doubted she'd have much of a political career left if she put supporters through a write-in and lost for the second time.
Her opponents will have the huge advantage of having their names printed on the ballot. Miller beat Murkowski in the primary with 55,847 votes to her 53,834. Murkowski said Friday that Miller's tally was just 11.9 percent of Alaska registered voters, although state Republican Party Chair Ruedrich called it a Republican primary turnout record.
Murkowski said that "to the tens of thousands of you who didn't vote in the primary, I ask you to join us. ... your vote has never, never been more important."
Murkowski is "going to get clobbered," said Sal Russo, the California political consultant behind the Tea Party Express. His group put an estimated $600,000 into Miller's campaign and won't hesitate to return to Alaska if they're needed, Russo said.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign committee said Murkowski's decision was the Republican Party "cannibalizing itself." The DSCC sent out a statement bashing Murkowski and Miller and touting McAdams.
The group called Miller an extremist and Murkowski a "Washington insider." It remains to be seen if the DSCC will actually give McAdams any money, though. So far it hasn't and won't say if it will.
Until her defeat in the primary, Murkowski was a rising star within the Republican leadership ranks, holding the position of vice chairwoman of the Senate Republican Conference. That leadership position is now gone, and Senate Minority Leader McConnell, a Republican from Kentucky, stated his support for Miller over Murkowski by sending $5,000 to Miller's campaign.
Miller also has the backing of the Club for Growth, an anti-tax and anti-earmark group that has pledged to do whatever it takes to help see him elected.
Among their tactics: trying to force Murkowski to return some of her estimated $1 million war chest. The group's spokesman, Michael Connolly, said it will work to get Murkowski to return contributions from any who supported her before but not as a write-in candidate.
She's also been attacked by the party's more conservative senators, including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., whose political action committee backs Miller. He didn't mention Murkowski by name when he spoke Friday to a crowd of conservative voters about the successes of the tea party movement, but they certainly knew who he meant.
"Even in Alaska, the home of bacon, they threw out that senator," he said.
Sean Cockerham reported from Anchorage and Erika Bolstad reported from Washington, D.C.