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Alaska Senate race: The untold story of Lisa Murkowski’s write-in decision

Patti Epler

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THREE-PART SERIES: How Lisa Murkowski turned the political tables on Joe Miller

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First of three parts: One of the most intriguing things about U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski's write-in bid to keep her seat is how close she came to not doing it. A family dinner, a 1991 Dom Perignon and the flip of a coin may well have set the course of Alaska's history, and arguably even the country's.

Now, with the count trending heavily her way, Murkowski is poised to become the first U.S. senator to be elected by write-in since 1954 when the late Strom Thurmond of South Carolina pulled it off. She will have beaten back the toughest challenge of her political career, rising from the ashes of a primary defeat at the hands of tea party candidate Joe Miller while bucking her own Republican Party national leadership to win.

Politics and technology have evolved and converged in an Internet world unimaginable when Thurmond made his run. And Alaska has distinct, even unique dynamics that political scholars will no doubt be studying and rehashing for years to come.

In the end, nearly 100,000 Alaskans may well have made the effort to write Murkowski's name on paper ballots in voting booths throughout the state, a seemingly simple step that many veteran pollsters for weeks said likely wouldn't happen.

"It's a pretty fairytale kind of story," says Cathy Allen, who served as chief political strategist for the Murkowski campaign. "There's this incredible romance about Alaska that Alaskans themselves emulate. It was another mountain Alaskans knew they could climb -- and they did."

By most accounts, the story begins in earnest on a Tuesday, four days before Murkowski stood on a stage in front of hundreds of cheering supporters at the Dena'ina Center and channeled the man who had as much to do with her being there as anyone -- her old friend and mentor, the late Sen. Ted Stevens: "To hell with politics, let's do what's right for Alaska."

In fact, his former staffers would soon take key positions for the write-in campaign, and his campaign ads, cut just a few days before he died Aug. 9 in a plane crash near Dillingham, would energize the deflated Murkowski camp.

'Then began limbo'

The Murkowski clan has always been close-knit -- and large. There's former U.S. senator and Alaska governor Frank Murkowski and his wife Nancy Gore Murkowski, six Murkowski sons and daughters, their spouses and kids, six or seven Gore siblings, nieces, nephews and their husbands, wives and kids. A family gathering can number more than 50. Many are in Alaska but others live elsewhere in the country and most keep in touch, usually daily, through phone and e-mails, a practice they perfected a few years ago when one of them was going through cancer treatment.

On Sept. 14, the Tuesday before the Friday announcement, Anne Gore had "Auntie Lisa" and a bunch of the family over for dinner -- salmon on the grill, as she recalls.

They sat around the dinner table and talked about the anguishing, amazing and unbelievably short few weeks that had passed since the Aug. 24 Republican primary.

The primary was a shocker, as stunning a wake-up call as a veteran politician could imagine. When the votes were counted, Murkowski had lost the GOP nomination to Miller by 2,006 votes, about 1 percent of the vote total.

"Then began limbo -- or purgatory was more like it," says Steve Wackowski, a campaign spokesman and a veteran of Stevens' Washington, D.C., staff.

A week after the primary, on Aug. 31, Gore was in the alley behind the campaign headquarters on 36th Avenue in Midtown Anchorage keeping an eye on her kids when Murkowski decided to concede. She stepped out back to call Miller and congratulate him. Murkowski's older sister, Carol Sturgulewski, followed her out, too, "just so she'd have someone to support her," Sturgulewski says.

"After she hung up the phone, the first thing she said was, 'He didn't even say thank you,'" Gore says. "It was more 'what can you do for me.'"

So Gore was angry when she saw a story in the paper the next morning quoting Miller saying he'd graciously thanked Murkowski for the concession call. One more lie, in her book, salt in a very raw wound. The moment couldn't have been lower.

And then the e-mails started pouring in. Hundreds of them, and phone calls, too. People were stopping Murkowski on the street and urging her to run. A Democrat who hadn't been involved in the primary campaign started a "Write In Lisa Murkowski" Facebook page and had 1,000 "fans" within a week. When Murkowski flew back to Washington, D.C., a week or so after the primary "people were giving notes to the stewardess, saying give this to Lisa," Sturgulewski says. "They were saying there are only two choices and neither is the one we want."

In droves, or so it seemed, people began confessing -- and apologizing -- that they hadn't actually bothered to vote. They'd thought it was in the bag. After all, no one had ever heard of a Fairbanks attorney named Joe Miller, and Lisa Murkowski was as close to political royalty as it gets in Alaska.

To run or not to run?

One night in the bleak days following the primary, Murkowski found herself alone at her Girdwood home, no food in the house, and wanting to talk. She drove to Anchorage and joined Gore for dinner at Kinley's Restaurant & Bar.


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"When I walked in she was talking to five or six people at a table," Gore says. "She said, 'When I walked in that table over there gave me a standing ovation.' People began stopping by our table and urging her to do it."

"You could see her sort of sit a little bit taller, you know, chin up a little higher, this feeling of 'people really want me to do this,'" Gore says. "And this was not people that she knew."

Their waiter was particularly insistent that Murkowski not give up. He even promised to work for the campaign, which he did, sign-waving and showing up at a debate.

When the women were leaving, Murkowski wrote a note to him on the back of her business card. "Patrick: Thank you for giving me the courage to do this for all Alaskans," Gore recalls it saying. "She slipped it in with the bill and I thought, 'She's going to do it.'"

But then the professionals weighed in -- the consultants and strategists, the pollsters and party honchos. "You had to do the analysis, and the analysis kept coming back 'No,'" says Sturgulewski.

No one had ever won a write-in campaign in Alaska. Look at what happened to Robin Taylor. It would be too hard, too expensive. The campaign staff had already started to disperse. It would tear the Republican Party apart.

On the other hand, Sturgulewski was quick to point out, Murkowski was well-known and well-liked throughout this relatively small state. Name recognition would not be a problem.

And, she says, "we have things now they didn't have even a few years ago." YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, the Internet, the blogs.

E-mails ricocheted through the family network. The people were urging her to run, the professionals were telling her it was over.

"It was like a groundswell that would sort of be bringing her back up to the surface and then someone else would try to push her back down, and then she'd be back up," Gore says.

Murkowski was keenly aware of the downside. "The reason it was so hard is because if she did this and lost not only would her political career be toast but she felt she would have let down all the people who took a chance on her," Sturgulewski says. That would include the Democrats who she would need to cross over and go against their party, the independents she needed to line up behind her, the people who would support her financially knowing a write-in was the longest of all long shots.

And then there was the campaign itself. The primary was already uglier and less civil than any of her previous campaigns. The 2004 race against Democrat Tony Knowles was at least "a fair fight," Sturgulewski says, noting that Miller had already shown he had no compunction about saying "terrible" and untrue things about Murkowski and her record.

When in doubt, flip a coin

But time was running short, and at that moment in mid-September when the extended clan gathered at Anne Gore's dinner table for salmon and salad "there was huge momentum," Sturgulewski says.

"And around and around and around we went," says Gore. "Finally I got out a bottle of champagne, a Dom Perignon 1991, and I said, 'I'm opening this bottle to celebrate a decision -- whatever it is.'"

Somebody got out a quarter after someone else mentioned the Unalaska legislative election a few years ago where a tie was settled by a coin toss."I flipped it and I put my hand on it and nobody could look," says Gore. "It was 'heads you're going to run and tails you're not going to do it,' and nobody could look. And Carol finally said, 'I'm going to do it.' So we let Carol pry my fingers up, and Carol looked, and she smiled and she didn't say anything. And then she quietly said, 'It's heads.' And that was it."

The next day Murkowski hopped a plane to Washington, D.C. She e-mailed the family saying she'd slept on it and woke up feeling good about it.

But things needed to start happening -- and quickly. First and foremost, the campaign staff needed to start pulling itself back together and putting plans in motion.

That activity caused a stir, and word started to get out that Murkowski was actually going to do it. Reporters, columnists and bloggers began to report the buzz that Lisa Murkowski was on the rebound.

But the consultants and pollsters and Republican Party officials also stepped up the "negative pressure," and by Thursday, Sept. 16, the doubts were setting in. Again. She called her sister Carol late Thursday night. It was even later in Washington, D.C., where Murkowski had been meeting with politicos all day.

"She was so down," Sturgulewski recalls. Murkowski believed the risk was too great, she'd be asking too much of her family, she'd be letting people down. She just didn't think she could pull it off.

"And I went to bed. And the phone wakes me up and it's Anne saying 'It's on! It's on!' And I was like, What? I got off the phone with her like four hours ago and it was off."

She called another sister, Eileen Van Wyhe, who lives in Fairbanks. Van Wyhe's daughter Kimberly, another Murkowski niece, ran the Fairbanks operation where Eileen was a steadfast volunteer. Eileen confirmed the news: it was on.

Then the phone rang again. "And it's Lisa," Sturgulewski says. "I picked up the phone and said hello and she said, 'Put on your big girl pants, we're going to do this.'"

"And that was the voice I heard for the rest of the campaign," Sturgulewski says. "She never looked back. It was all in."

Part I: The untold story of Lisa Murkowski's write-in decision

Part II: 'We had to prove this could be done'

Part III: Joe Miller implodes and Murkowski's two-pronged strategy pays off

Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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