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Alaska's Lisa Murkowski declares victory, makes history

Craig Medred

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

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Lisa Murkowski, who angered many in Alaska when her father and then-Gov. Frank Murkowski named her to fill his just-abandoned U.S. Senate seat in 2002, was Wednesday night celebrating an improbable -- if not near impossible -- re-election victory.

The first time Alaskans voted Lisa into office in 2004, she got a big push from legendary Republican powerhouse U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and rode the coattails of George W. Bush, who was on his way to a landslide presidential victory over Democrat Sen. John Kerry. Even then, she edged Democratic former Gov. Tony Knowles by only three percentage points.

Six years later, she was thought to be a shoo-in, but somehow managed to lose the Alaska GOP primary on Aug. 24 to an unknown. Alaska, like much of the rest of the country, was in an angry, anti-incumbent mood, and Yale-educated lawyer Joe Miller from Fairbanks found Murkowski's soft underbelly. A Kansas transplant with a sparkling resume -- West Point, Gulf War tank commander, Yale, federal magistrate judge -- Miller teamed with the tea party to attack Murkowski as a left-leaning Republican in name only. Boosted by pal Sarah Palin, the former half-term Alaska governor cum GOP political celebrity, Miller hit the jackpot in his RINO hunt. He cut the Republican base away from Murkowski and beat her by a thin 2,000-vote margin in the GOP primary. A shocked Murkowski conceded and all but gave up, dismissing at the time the idea of staging a write-in campaign being urged on her by supporters.

She would eventually change her mind, though, and come back to win a unprecedented general election victory. She could barely contain herself during an emotional rally in Anchorage on Wednesday night at which she finally declared the race over.

"We fought hard. We fought fair. We fought right, right up to the end," Murkowski said. "What a wild, wild two months this has been."

She thanked the other two candidates in the race -- Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams, who has already conceded -- and urged them to join Alaskans in uniting in the state's best interests. "I ask Joe and Scott, let's share some of these ideas that have come out" during the election, she said.

Miller, however, doesn't sound like a man ready to give up, despite suggestions from some supporters and Alaska Republican Party chairman Randy Ruedrich. His spokesman hinted at election fraud in a press release Wednesday before Murkowski's victory speech. "Our campaign has sworn affidavits identifying unsecured ballot boxes, other precincts where numerous ballots appear to be in the same handwriting, others where there is 100 percent voter turnout and still other precincts where the ballots were sent to the Division of Elections presorted by U.S. Senate candidate,'' said Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto. "These and other irregularities give our campaign pause. Alaskans must be able to trust the results of its elections."

The press release argued that Miller trails Murkowski by less than 1 percent of the vote, and said that because of that a recount might be requested. The official results have Miller behind by more 4 percent, but he believes the 8,000 ballots his poll watchers challenged for misspellings, bad handwriting or simply the printing of "Murkowski, Lisa" instead of "Lisa Murkowski" are invalid. Whether that is the case would ultimately have to be decided by a judge.

Despite Miller's claims to be fighting on, his headquarters in Anchorage was deserted Wednesday. Not only were there no staff, there were no desks, no filing cabinets -- nothing. The offices had been vacated.

Miller has been avoiding the Alaska press for a month, contending the media are biased and against him. But he did talk to Fox News on Wednesday, saying "we'll wait and see when these numbers finally sort out here at the end of the week. The voters in the state of Alaska expect there to be integrity in the process; we are going to pursue that." Ruedrich, the Alaska GOP chairman, questioned that approach. He said the vote counting process is "very precise" and recounts rarely end up with a different result.

"We call on Joe Miller to respect the will of the voters and to end his campaign in a dignified manner," Ruedrich said in a statement. "We have every expectation that Joe will do the right thing."

Ruedrich's comments come as many in the state GOP are talking about how to heal the wounds in a party bitterly split between primary winner Miller and general election winner Murkowski. During the Murkowski-Miller battle, Ruedrich found himself caught in the middle at times. A past Murkowski supporter, he was a strong advocate for Miller after the primary, despite Miller's past accusations that Ruedrich might be plotting to kill him. As a part-time attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough, Miller asked his employers to provide him security because of fears he was risking his life by joining Palin in a failed attempt to oust Ruedrich as party chairman.

Miller's worries about Ruedrich emerged on Alaska Dispatch after he won the primary, and it came out that he'd been suspended from his job in Fairbanks for impersonating co-workers so he could use their computers to vote in an online poll on Miller's own website. He apparently thought a strong showing against Ruedrich in his personal web poll might help topple the party chairman, who had long been feuding with Palin. The disclosure of Miller's misbehavior on the job in Fairbanks was the beginning of the end for a man who was supposed to be one of Palin's "commonsense conservatives" but looked, based on his actions, more like a poster boy for what is wrong with government entitlements.

Miller solicited and accepted federal farm subsidies, arguing that was the only way to afford to buy farm land in Kansas. He hired his wife as his judicial clerk, despite a judicial ban on nepotism, arguing that someone in the court system -- someone who was never identified -- said it was OK. He solicited and accepted federally funded child care and health support -- the sorts of government handouts he decried during the campaign -- and then defended his actions by saying the family had been going through a rough patch. He obtained a state-sponsored loan for 1,000 acres of land near Delta Junction, a loan that required he file a five-year plan for farm development, but he never turned a shovel of dirt. After buying a home in Anchorage, and while spending tens of thousands of dollars to build an addition to it, he claimed to be indigent in order to obtain a state hunting and fishing license for which he didn't qualify. To get the $5 license, you had to have been a registered voter in Alaska for a year; Miller hadn't been. There was more, too, but it didn't come out until after the unexpected primary victory aided by Murkowski's mercurial behavior.

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Lily Stevens, daughter of the late Ted Stevens, and Lisa Murkowski. (Jill Burke photo)
Uncle Ted and the plane crash

After her mentor, Ted Stevens, died in a plane crash near Dillingham in August, Murkowski all but suspended her campaign. Television commercials the former senator had filmed before his death were kept off the air, despite the Stevens family suggesting to Murkowski she use them.

Stevens, despite losing his Senate seat to Democrat Mark Begich after being caught up in a badly out-of-control federal investigation, remained a revered figure in Alaska. Most political observers thought it was a huge mistake not to bring him back from the grave to urge a Murkowski victory, and they proved to be right when she went down in defeat to Miller.

For a time, it looked like that would be the end of her political career. "Once I complete that term in the Senate here at the start of the year, I'm coming back home," Murkowski said during a concession speech. "You all know my heart and my soul has always been in Alaska."

Miller could barely contain himself. Though there remained a general election race against Democrat Scott McAdams, a former mayor of the small town of Sitka in the middle of the Alaska Panhandle, almost everyone in heavily Republican Alaska believed that a mere formality. Many were already pondering what sort of senator Miller would be. He'd won the primary by pushing for cuts in federal spending in a state where federal pork is what feeds a big chunk of the economy.


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Miller's ability to sell Alaskans the idea they needed to vote for him because the nation was on the verge of "bankruptcy" helped make him an immediate celebrity. He seemed to be on Fox News and CNN more than he was in Alaska after the primary.

It was a heady time for Miller. His campaign got the first indications of voter push-back when the candidate got a little too exuberant on Twitter.

"Think I'll do some house hunting while I'm in DC," he Tweeted while visiting the nation's capital. "Guess I should pick up some office furniture, as well, while in DC." There was more: "Then there's the matter of a name plaque for the door'' and "My sincere appreciation for the warm welcome, including from future colleagues in DC."

By then, Miller had won the approval of the Republican National Committee and had every reason to feel cocky. But it wasn't long after that Murkowski started hinting that she might not be going away, that maybe she would try to stage a write-in campaign after all. She announced on Sept. 17. Though polls at the time showed her running neck and neck with Miller, many thought the write-in campaign was doomed to failure. The late-Sen. Ernest Gruening, another of Alaska's fabled politicians from the past, tried it once and failed. The last U.S. senator to succeed with the tactic was South Carolina's Strom Thurmond in 1954. Lisa Murkowski hadn't even been born then.

One Anchorage pollster, familiar with focus groups in which Alaskans were asked to provide written opinions of their views, questioned how many Alaskans would be able to spell "Murkowski." A high percentage, he joked, appear to have a hard time of spelling their own names, let alone some political candidate's three-syllable last name. Murkowski pushed on anyway. Miller's campaign, meanwhile, began to disintegrate.

Miller's downfall

His past associations with America's socialistic support network emerged. After a debate in Anchorage, Miller did an interview with a visiting celebrity journalist from Fox News and then announced to Alaska reporters that he wouldn't talk to them about personal issues. Then a group of security guards he hired for a town hall meeting in Anchorage manhandled and handcuffed Alaska Dispatch's editor, who pursued the candidate with questions about past behaviors.

At the same time, Murkowski's write-in campaign angered the tea party. The RNC was angry. Some of the GOP party faithful in Alaska, most especially Palin, were angry. Anchorage radio talkshow host Dan Fagan, who'd abandoned all sense of on-air fairness to become a screeching Miller propogandist, starting telling radio listeners that Murkowski's name was spelled Mur-COW-ski in an effort to get write-in votes disqualified.

As things turned out, though, the Alaska Division of Elections decided it would accept this and other phonetic spellings of Murkowski as legitimate votes for the candidate. Yet Murkowski didn't need that help. Her supporters won a statewide spelling bee. She beat Miller by more than 2,000 votes without counting another 8,000. The latter were those votes with phonetic spellings, poor handwriting or other problems challenged by the Miller campaign, which even protested write-ins for "Murkowski, Lisa" instead of "Lisa Murkowski." It was the Miller campaign's contention that because Murkowski was registered as a write-in candidate under the name "Lisa Murkowski," only write-ins for "Lisa Murkowski'' should count for her. At one point, the Miller campaign challenged "Lisa Murkowski, Republican."

It was all for naught. Alaskans who could spell, or had the sense to wear wristbands spelling out the name Lisa Murkowski, came through for the incumbent senator. Miller blamed Alaska Native corporations, which had done well by the federal government when Stevens was a Senate powerhouse and wanted Murkowski there to help them continue to garner preferential treatment in federal contracting.

"Joe is trying to blame this, that or the other thing'' for his loss," Murkowski said Wednesday night.

"He said if the numbers weren't in his favor, he'd concede," she added. "I think our numbers are strong,'' but she didn't expect to hear from Miller. "I haven't had any indication he was going to be calling me," she said.

Her supporters didn't seem to care. They packed the Laborers Hall in Anchorage for a rally. The parking lot outside quickly overflowed. The mood inside started off upbeat and then just grew.

"We made history," said Myron Naneng, president of the Association of Village Council Presidents who flew in from Bethel. "We made history. I think people in the Y-K (Yukon-Kuskokwim) Delta should be glad and happy that we got Lisa back as a senator for the next six years. I think everybody (in rural Alaska) really made a commitment after what after happened in the primary."

Naneng thought Miller's campaign had offended Alaska Native voters. "He had no presence other than insulting Native people," Naneng said. "We are not special interests. We are people who were here before he ever was."

Miller arrived in Alaska 16 years ago. By then, Stevens had already been one of Alaska's senators for more than two decades. One of Stevens' daughters was at Murkowski's victory.

"I know in my heart this is what (Ted Stevens) would have wanted,'' said daughter Lily Stevens Becker. "But I always tried to not talk for him when he was around, and I still try to do that now. But we're just so happy with the outcome. We're still just taking it one minute at a time, and we wanted to help Lisa as much as we could wherever we could."

Reporters Joshua Saul, Jill Burke and Patti Epler contributed to this story. Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.