U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski may well have done what few thought she could do: make history. She could become the first U.S. senator since 1954 to win a contentious write-in campaign.
Election results as of 8:50 a.m. Wednesday morning had write-in ballots, many of which may have gone to Murkowski, accounting for 41 percent of the vote. Since that exceeded 34 percent for tea party candidate Joe Miller, a Republican, and nearly 24 percent for Democrat Scott McAdams, state election officials will now count the write-ins as soon as absentee and questioned ballots are in.
In the end, the three candidates have split the vote so thoroughly that the winner will be sent to Washington, D.C., by a minority of Alaska voters. Nearly two-thirds voted for somebody else. (As of 8:50 a.m. Wednesday, 13,588 votes separated write-in candidates and Miller, while 20,874 votes separated Miller from McAdams.)
"Alaskans have been coming together -- Republicans and Democrats and independents and Greens and AIPs and Libertarians and nonpartisans ... and we are taking our state forward into the future," Murkowski told a crowd of supporters Tuesday night at the Egan Center. "We are making it happen. So we have got to wait just a little bit more. But we have waited this long ... we can wait it out."
By 10 p.m. Election Central at the Egan Center was jammed with people watching the results roll in on the giant screens dominating the front of the room. Candidates cruised through, many of them sitting or standing for interviews with the TV news crews lining the back of the room, their areas marked off with station logos and huge bouquets of red, white and blue balloons.
McAdams strode through trailed by cheering and chanting supporters. He acknowledged the vote total was not running in his favor but he wanted to see how rural Alaska came in before conceding defeat.
"It was great fun," McAdams said. "I'm glad I did it."
He was unsure of his future plans but he said he wants to stay in politics, "maybe even in my community."
"The biggest thing is that communities matter," he said, and encouraged people to get involved whether it was on their local school board, as a Boy Scout leader or in a community group.
A tense Joe Miller refused to make an appearance at Election Central, sending supporters home early. He had gathered with supporters and two country music performing artists at the Snow Goose Restaurant, but the crowd began dwindling as unfavorable results kept coming in. Miller left the Snow Goose with his family after telling reporters: "It's not over til it's over."
Still, he said, "Whatever happens, the end result is going to be good for the country."
Miller also told his supporters he will continue to need lots of volunteers in the weeks to come, suggesting he is not giving up on his pursuit of the senate seat.
Murkowski held a jubilant vigil with a happy crowd of supporters at the Dena'ina Center, where in September she announced she would make a historic run at becoming the first U.S. senator to win by write-in vote since Strom Thurmond succeeded in 1954 in South Carolina. She spent a lot of time and money in the last few weeks educating voters on how to spell her name and how to properly fill in the oval next to her name on the write-in ballot.
Murkowski swept into Election Central about 11:30 p.m. with supporters chanting: "Lisa! Lisa! Lisa!" and "Six more years!"
John Young, a Murkowski supporter from Anchorage, said: "We don't care how they do it in Outside. Tonight, Alaska spoke."
A contentious campaign
The all-out war for the hearts and votes of Alaskans was set in motion Aug. 24 when GOP unknown Joe Miller -- endorsed by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- edged out veteran Sen. Murkowski in what was called "the most shocking" upset of the 2010 political season.
Democrat Scott McAdams, who had expected to be running a half-hearted race against the odds-on favorite Murkowski, suddenly found himself the center of nationwide political attention.
Three months later, McAdams -- as he predicted Aug. 25 -- has become a well-known Alaskan name who scrambled and raised more than $1 million mainly from hundreds of small contributors. A quick study on federal issues, McAdams took to the campaign trail with good humor and political savvy that helped him hold on to many Democrats who had been drifting toward Murkowski rather than let Miller win.
Murkowski traveled a campaign path that ran slightly to the right of the middle of the political road, carefully crafting her positions to appeal to moderate Republicans, independents and Democrats who believed McAdams couldn't win and others who couldn't bring themselves to vote for Miller. Her general election campaign was much ramped up from her primary effort, challenging Miller head on for factual inaccuracies and misstatements about her record and views. She also took Miller to task over his integrity and ethics.
For his part, Miller ended the campaign saying he had become the best-known of all the candidates because the media had delved so deeply into his background, a situation he found wholly unfair. Miller, supported by local conservative talk show hosts, blasted the press for reporting on government handouts he had taken even though as a candidate he strongly opposed federal entitlement programs. Those included farm subsidies on Kansas farmland he'd owned, unemployment for his wife and, on the state level, subsidized health care and low income hunting and fishing licenses.
Miller also ran into media questions about discrepancies over his required financial disclosure statements and other irregularities in his background. But the boiling point came when Miller declared he wouldn't answer any more questions about his past even as the Alaska Dispatch and other media outlets filed public records lawsuits to gain access to his personnel file from seven years as a part-time attorney with the Fairbanks North Star Borough.
A judge ruled in favor of the press, and the records revealed Miller had been disciplined in 2008 for using borough computers in a failed effort to oust the state Republican Party chairman -- a takeover led by Miller's political pal, then-Gov. Palin. The file also included a detailed statement from Miller acknowledging that he had lied repeatedly about the incident. In fall 2009, Miller resigned from the borough shortly before a major case he'd been working on for years was about to go trial, citing disagreements with his supervisors over that case as well as another, and because he had been denied vacation time to go elk hunting with his kids. Miller quit without notice after being told he needed to come to work by 2 p.m. that afternoon.
While McAdams relied on small contributions from many supporters, both Murkowski and Miller benefited from powerful special interest groups who fueled their campaigns -- and saturated TV viewing -- with hundreds of spots aimed at a number of touchstones. Miller got the backing of national Republicans who gave heavily to his campaign and produced ads that knocked McAdams as a clone of President Barack Obama. The Tea Party Express, which had helped boost Miller in the final days of the primary, helped him again in the general.
Murkowski, meanwhile, has long had the financial support of major corporations particularly in the energy business. She started the general election with more than $1 million left over from the primary. A new coalition of Native corporations also poured a substantial amount of money into independent expenditures to help Murkowski, drawing a legal challenge from Miller's camp.
And Murkowski often invoked Ted Stevens' name -- the beloved Alaska senator who died Aug 9 in a plane crash -- during her write-in campaign. "Ted Stevens told us, ‘To hell with politics. Just do what's right for Alaska," Murkowski told supporters at the Egan Center.
Counting write-in ballots
Now, the Alaska Division of Elections will begin counting the write-in ballots, a process that is expected to be overwhelmed by lawyers from all three campaigns challenging everything from how well poll workers followed a recent Alaska Supreme Court ruling on dealing with requests for help to spelling and intent on the handwritten ballots.
Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell, who is in charge of the election process, said Tuesday night he will try to get the count of the write-in ballots started as soon as possible and not wait until Nov. 18 when absentees and questioned ballots are to be counted. He said there is no question about the issue of whether ovals have been properly filled in. If the ballot appears in the count, the machine has counted the oval, he said.
Lining up counters and observers from the parties and candidates will be the time consuming part, he said.
The counters will go through the ballots under the eye of the observers and count all the ballots in which Murkowski is spelled correctly and set those aside. Ballots that misspell her name will go into another pile and it's yet to be determined which of those will count, he said.
Beyond that, "I'm not going to speculate," Campbell said, including on the prospect for legal challenges.
Contact Patti Epler at patti(at)alaskadispatch.com.