WASHINGTON - Sen. Lisa Murkowski said Thursday she was seriously considering a write-in campaign even as she acknowledged that success would have an "extraordinarily high hurdle."
Her decision, expected today, hasn't been an easy one, she said Thursday during an interview on her first full day back in the Senate after tea party-backed Joe Miller beat her in the Aug. 24 Republican primary. In recent days, Republicans in Washington have closed ranks behind Miller.
But she is being swayed, she said, by Alaskans she described as "from all walks of life."
"Believe you me, the easier path would be to pack it all up and go do something different," she said. "If I had not heard this call from Alaskans, I would not be deliberating as I am."
Few statewide write-in campaigns are successful and no U.S. senator has pulled one off since South Carolina's Strom Thurmond in 1954. If she were to do it, five other people -- including Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams -- would be on the ballot. Murkowski would not and voters would have to write in her name.
Plenty of people have weighed in with advice, Murkowski said, including her colleagues in the Senate, where many other Republicans have been openly hostile to the idea. But her Senate colleagues don't vote for her, Murkowski said, and she's listening to Alaskans.
The response hasn't been just from "people within the energy industry who were thinking about their jobs" and who know that because of her spot on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee she'd have a role in shaping U.S. energy policy if Republicans return to power in the Senate, Murkowski said.
"It is people from all walks of life, every corner of the state, who are concerned about Alaska's future and concerned enough to take action on it," she said. "I'm a public servant. My job by definition is to listen to my constituents. And there was a process in place -- a primary election -- that's certainly one way that you listen to your constituents."
She added: "When you think about the outcome of that, in a closed Republican primary, how many Alaskans were actually able to weigh in? So what is the will of the constituency? When you hear this outpouring of support and concern -- concern about the future of the state of Alaska and our representation here in the Senate -- you do feel a responsibility."
If she does decide to do it, she'll be fighting her own party. Senate Republicans have grappled in recent days with how much support to give GOP candidates who, with the backing of the Tea Party Express, ousted so-called establishment Republicans. Democrats this week branded those Senate candidates -- including Miller and the Delaware GOP candidate, Christine O'Donnell -- as "extremist."
In Miller's case, Republicans who once backed Murkowski haven't just signaled they're supporting her potential rival, they've written checks. The National Republican Senatorial Committee pledged as much as $212,000 in direct and indirect help. The top Senate Republican, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, sent Miller $5,000 from his own political action committee.
Thursday, McConnell wouldn't discuss Murkowski's bid other than to say she would have to "decide for herself" whether to pursue a write-in campaign without the backing of the Republican Party.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee on Thursday issued a statement saying: "Alaska's voters have spoken, and have chosen Joe Miller as their Republican U.S. Senate nominee. If Senator Murkowski is truly committed to doing 'what is right' for her state, then we hope that she will step forward and fully endorse Joe Miller's candidacy. No matter what Senator Murkowski decides for her own political interests in the future, Republicans are united behind Joe Miller's nomination, and we are confident that he will be elected Alaska's next U.S. Senator in November."
The Tea Party Express, which dumped more than $600,000 into Miller's campaign, pledged on Thursday to return to Alaska for the general election if Murkowski launches a write-in bid.
"If she is unwilling to be a good team member, then she should know that we at the Tea Party Express are prepared to work twice as hard to defeat her in November as we did last month in the primary," said Tea Party Express chairwoman Amy Kremer. "Like many other career politicians she seems to think this seat is some sort of entitlement. It's not, and Alaska voters sent a message: 'Thanks, but no thanks, Lisa.' "
Murkowski earlier this week called the Tea Party Express "an outside extremist group" that hijacked the primary. But she also was careful to differentiate the movement as a whole from the deep-pocketed organization that supported Miller's primary bid.
Something is being said in the tea party movement that Republicans need to be listening to, Murkowski said Thursday.
"What we are hearing around this country, whether it's in Alaska or all the way up to Maine, is that there is an anger, there is an unrest, there is an anxiousness about what is happening in this country," she said. "And I share that anxiety, I share that concern with the direction that government is taking, with the level of spending that we're seeing."
Other senators, including Sen. Jim DeMint, R-South Carolina, were openly dismissive of her effort, telling reporters it would be a "terrible thing" for her to run a write-in campaign. DeMint, who along with ex-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has become something of a kingmaker for right-wing candidates, last week spent $12,983 in an online appeal to help raise money for Miller.
In a fundraising letter to supporters, DeMint warned that some establishment Republicans are "quietly rooting" for candidates such as O'Donnell to lose "so they can continue to peddle their discredited line that conservatives cannot win."
"They mistakenly believe that a single defeat in Delaware will discredit the work we have done this year to elect principled leaders in Pennsylvania, Florida, Colorado, Kentucky, Utah, Nevada, Wisconsin, Washington, and Alaska," he wrote. "They are wrong."
Regardless, Murkowski said she'd found some support among fellow senators, even if none was openly telling reporters they would back her write-in bid.
"The encouragement is, 'Do what is right,' " Murkowski said colleagues told her. "And that's ultimately what you look to do. Do what is right for the people that you represent and your state and yourself, your family. If you do what's right, all is good."
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a moderate senator, wouldn't disclose what sort of conversation she had had with Murkowski Thursday, other than to say that "she's a great colleague and a friend as well." But Snowe also said Thursday that the Republican Party wouldn't achieve a majority with the tea party alone. It would also require moderate Republicans like herself, Snowe said, and members "across the range of political philosophy."
Murkowski said she knows it'll be a bruising fight if she decides to take it on, and history's not in her favor. Thurmond's successful bid occurred before she was born, Murkowski said. But now, she added, "we have communications tools that Strom Thurmond couldn't even dream of. We've got social networking, we've got an ability to communicate with people now that does make it feasible."
"And I have suggested if that there's any place in the country where it might be possible, it is a state like Alaska," she said.
"I'm not much of a poker player, but the analogy I've been using is that I'm sitting there and I've been dealt a six and an eight," she said. "And the guy across from me has two kings showing. And I'm hoping for the five, the seven and the nine."
"But it is possible," she said. "And I think this is the hope that Alaskans have been sharing with me: 'If it is possible, Lisa, will you give it a try, will you give us a choice?' "
"It is extraordinarily difficult," she said. "But I do feel a responsibility to my state. So that's where I am."
Murkowski will announce her decision this afternoon Sen. Lisa Murkowski is expected to announce her intentions regarding a write-in campaign today. Her campaign said Thursday she will "address Alaskans" at 5 p.m., from the lobby of the Dena'ina Convention Center in Anchorage. Check adn.com for updates.
By ERIKA BOLSTAD