At 6:15 p.m. Tuesday, U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski ended her bid for the GOP nomination to the seat she has held since her father passed it on to her eight years ago.
After a day elections officials spent counting about 13,000 absentee, questioned and early ballots that saw Murkowski make up little ground against Fairbanks lawyer Joe Miller, Alaska's senior senator called Miller and conceded: He had beat the popular incumbent in what national political experts were calling "the most shocking" upset of the 2010 political season.
"It's been a terrible week," Murkowski said at a press conference. "I don't see a scenario where the primary will turn out in my favor."
By 5 p.m., Murkowski still trailed Miller by 1,496 votes -- 49.40 percent to his 50.60 percent. Most political experts now believe that it's virtually impossible for her to make up the difference, given the trend in the count and the geographic areas that remain to be counted. As expected, she gained some ground in Anchorage but not enough to significantly close the distance with Miller, who continued to remain strong in Fairbanks and the Valley.
Murkowski was appointed to the Senate in 2002 when her father, Frank Murkowski, resigned to become governor of Alaska. She had gained enough prominence in the GOP political hierarchy to become ranking member on the Senate Energy Committee, a position that is important to the state that depends on oil and gas production for most of its income.
"It's a shame to lose all that seniority," said former state Sen. Clem Tillion, a Halibut Cove Republican. "Now we have two freshman down there with no seniority. We're going to be naked."
Miller is a Gulf War veteran and Yale Law School graduate backed by the Tea Party Express and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. Before the primary, few political insiders and journalists expected Miller would beat Murkowski, leaving many Alaskans unfamiliar about some of his positions.As word spread that Murkowski might concede Tuesday evening, staffers and volunteers at Miller's modest campaign headquarters in Anchorage hurriedly held a series of closed-door meetings. The face of Mark Fish, a volunteer who hadn't shaved before the Aug. 24 primary and teased that the hair growth was a "playoff beard," lit up with a smile after taking a call from his wife who informed him that she had just seen a news report that Murkowski was about to say something.
The volunteers expressed gratitude to the people who mobilized statewide on Miller's behalf, and gave a nod to the sizable financial backing of the Tea Party Express, which they believe allowed Miller to better compete with Murkowski. Without it, her campaign message could easily have overrun his on television and radio, potentially drowning out his criticism of her record and his "conservative constitutionalist" platform.
"It was always a grassroots effort," Fish said.
Like other Tea Party candidates, Miller believes government spending is out of control, including in Alaska, a state that's depended on the federal government for decades. Miller has said he favors a bold vision for Alaska, one that would entail the state taking over federal lands, including Denali National Park and Preserve.
Miller now faces Democrat Scott McAdams, a former commercial fisherman who is currently the mayor of Sitka, in the Nov. 2 general election.