Sen. Lisa Murkowski claimed victory in her historic write-in bid for the U.S. Senate Wednesday night, thanking Alaskans and telling cheering supporters: "I think we can say our miracle is here."
Unprecedented in modern politics, the win returns the Republican incumbent to Washington, D.C., in a drawn-out defeat of tea party-backed conservative Joe Miller.
The Associated Press and the state Republican Party called the race for Murkowski on Wednesday, with the Alaska GOP asking Miller to stand down. "We call on Joe Miller to respect the will of the voters and end his campaign in a dignified manner," chairman Randy Ruedrich said in a prepared statement.
But the Fairbanks Republican -- who staggered the Murkowski camp by winning the party primary in August -- said he's not conceding.
The Miller camp has called the state voting system "suspect." It's challenging the count in court and says the state Division of Elections has not complied with its request to review "voting tapes" from the ballot machines that record the votes cast.
"It's not that we believe necessarily that we're going to come out on top," Miller said in a phone interview. Instead, he said, the campaign wants to make sure the counting process is a fair one.
Asked if he sees any scenario in which he could still win, he said: "I don't think it's impossible."
Murkowski returned to Anchorage from Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. A throng of supporters ringed the concrete walls of the local laborers union hall for a 6 p.m. rally. Some stood on benches or chairs.
A spokesman for the campaign chanted as Murkowski took the stage. "We made history! We made history!"
"Yes, we can!" said a man in the crowd.
"We did, we did," Murkowski said softly. "We made history, and doesn't it just feel ... wow.
"Still a little bit, uh, a little bit mind-boggling."
Murkowski's lead stood at more than 10,000 votes as of Tuesday night. Even if every write-in ballot challenged by the Miller campaign was thrown out, she would still be 2,000 votes ahead.
Elections officials counted the last of the ballots on Wednesday -- about 700 absentee votes, Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said in an e-mail.
The division had not released a final tally as of Wednesday night. The last of the write-in ballots will be reviewed for eligibility and challenges Friday, Fenumiai said.
Murkowski's margin over Miller appears to make irrelevant his lawsuit asking the courts to toss out misspelled votes.
Miller said Wednesday he didn't know if he'd call for a recount. A Miller spokesman said earlier in the week that the campaign wanted a hand count of all ballots, not just write-in, to avoid any errors in the machine counting process.
But Fenumiai said Wednesday that state does not grant recounts entirely by hand. A traditional recount using optical scan equipment costs about $15,000, she said, and is only paid for by the state if a candidate is within .5 percent of winning.
Wednesday's rally punctuated the general election rematch between the two Republicans.
Myron Naneng, head of an Alaska Native organization that serves more than 50 villages in Western Alaska, watched from a folding chair beside his daughter. Among the standing-room only crowd: the head of the Anchorage police union, former state Sen. Jerry Mackie and a bank of television cameras, including some from national networks.
Murkowski, a well-known incumbent with a lot of campaign money running in a small state, was positioned better than most obscure write-in candidates, but political operatives and academics will be studying her campaign for years. Murkowski distributed T-shirts -- "Too legit to quit" -- temporary tattoos and bracelets emblazoned with her name.
She had $1 million left over from the Republican primary. A Supreme Court ruling earlier this year allowed unrestricted spending from Alaska Native corporations, who poured over $1.2 million into the race on her behalf.
Labors groups, such as the Laborers' Local 341, and some Democrats spooked by Miller's far-right politics supported Murkowski, too.
Murkowski said the write-in battle has made her more independent but stopped at the idea that she now "owes" her non-traditional supporters.
"I don't know that it's a question of owing anybody," she said. "It's doing the best job that I possibly can to represent everybody. And that's a challenge. It'd be a heck of a lot easier if all I was going to do was represent the Republicans."
In a conversation after the rally with Donald Mitchell, a Democratic lawyer, Murkowski acknowledged that she knew it wasn't easy for many Democrats to vote for her, and that it took a "total leap of faith" to believe she would be more independent of the demands of her party's leadership.
"People looked at me and said, 'Well, we're deathly afraid of (Joe) Miller,' " she said, "and I think that they looked at it and said, 'You know, she's not there for us as much as we want her to be, but there's hope, there's hope.' "
While she wouldn't say where she might strike an independent course on national issues, she pledged it would happen.
"I'm in a different spot than I ever have been before. Which I think is a good spot for the Democrats and for the independents and for the Natives and the Laborers who are all just a little bit like, 'So what does it mean?' "
Murkowski said she expects to retain her committee assignments and seniority in D.C. Initially, though, her colleagues saw the write-in bid as a lost cause.
"There was not a one that supported the endeavor," she said.
"They were all very concerned because history does not bode well for a write-in candidate," Murkowski said.
Murkowski's write-in victory is the first for a U.S. Senate candidate since Strom Thurmond of South Carolina won in 1954, and the first candidate elected to statewide office in Alaska as a write-in.
Daily News reporters Richard Mauer and Erika Bolstad contributed to this report. Call Kyle Hopkins at 257-4334 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
By KYLE HOPKINS