Challenger Kelly Tshibaka narrowly led incumbent U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski in preliminary returns in Tuesday’s election, but Murkowski said she was confident she’d overtake her Trump-backed opponent once absentee ballots were counted and ranked choice votes tabulated.
Tshibaka, a right-wing Republican, had just over 44% of first-choice votes while Murkowski, a moderate Republican, had nearly 43%, with all precincts reporting on Thursday. Thousands of absentee votes remain to be counted.
In order to win under Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system, a candidate must gain more than 50% of the vote. If no candidate crosses that threshold in first-choice votes, as appears to be the case in this race, the last-place candidate is eliminated and the second-choice votes of their supporters are tallied.
With over 217,000 ballots counted, Democrat Pat Chesbro had nearly 10% of first-choice votes; many of her supporters are expected to rank Murkowski second. Republican Buzz Kelley, who dropped out of the race in September and endorsed Tshibaka but whose name still appeared on the ballot, had almost 3% of first-choice votes.
The Division of Elections is set to continue counting ballots through Nov. 23, when officials will unveil the final tabulated results of the election via livestream.
What began with a 7% gap between Tshibaka and Murkowski in first-choice votes posted Tuesday evening, quickly shrank as more rural precincts — which favored Murkowski — reported their results. By Thursday, the gap between the two had gone down to less than 1.5%.
Tshibaka reacted triumphantly to the early results. In an interview days before the election, she predicted she would lead Murkowski by “nine points or double digits” and that the race result would come down to voter turnout. But as additional results were released on election night and more rural precincts reported their ballot counts, Murkowski appeared well-positioned to overtake Tshibaka.
After Murkowski arrived at a campaign celebration at the Anchorage Williwaw event space, she briefly sang verses from Julie Andrews’ song “I have confidence,” a number in the musical “Sound of Music,” with her sister, Carol Sturgulewski, and her sister-in-law, Karen Murkowski. That confidence seemed to pan out with a growing share of first-place votes.
Tshibaka initially told supporters at the Main Event Grill in Anchorage that she was “way ahead.” When Tshibaka’s lead shrank significantly after 11 p.m., she still appeared confident. “It’s all to be expected based on the precincts that came in,” she said. “We’re good.”
Murkowski, addressing her supporters after 11 p.m., said ballots still to be counted will come from areas where she expects to see a strong showing.
“As we are looking to the lay of the land and what is still out there to be counted, we feel very strongly about how they’re going to move and where they’re going to move us to,” Murkowski said. “Then we take into account what happens with ranked choice, and that’s going to make a difference for us.”
“So we’re in a good place this evening,” Murkowski concluded.
Throughout her campaign, Tshibaka spent a lot of time knocking on people’s doors and connecting with voters directly on her message of change, while Murkowski relied on a coalition of moderate Republicans, Democrats, unions and Alaska Native groups to carry her to victory.
”People have felt forgotten, and ignored, and connecting with them personally really changed that dynamic,” Tshibaka said Tuesday.
Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant who helped run an independent group that supported Murkowski to the tune of millions, said it’s too early to draw conclusions about the race.
“I know (the results of the race) are going to turn around — or every cent I spent on polling was a waste,” Lottsfeldt said.
The Senate race was largely seen as a referendum on former President Donald Trump. Murkowski is the only GOP senator who voted to impeach Trump and then faced reelection this year. Tshibaka was endorsed by Trump, who promised to campaign against Murkowski and held a rally in Anchorage in July.
But Alaska’s new ranked choice voting system — designed and advocated for by Murkowski allies — charted a path for Murkowski to head into the general election with a solid coalition of supporters despite not having the backing of Alaska Republican Party leadership.
Murkowski said Tuesday the new voting system allowed Alaska voters to “determine our own electoral fate.” The senator called Alaska “the pilot car” for ranked choice voting.
“The rest of the country is going to be looking at this and saying, is this good, bad or indifferent?” Murkowski said. “What does it mean for Alaska? What does it mean for a Republican like me? I think there’s a lot that we are still going to be attempting to understand and read in these next couple of weeks.”
Murkowski’s campaign emphasized her 20-year record in the U.S. Senate, including her work on the federal infrastructure bill that stands to bring billions to Alaska. She also touted her record as a rare Senate Republican open to codifying abortion protections in federal law.
Tshibaka, a former commissioner of the Alaska Department of Administration, spent much of her 19-month campaign attacking Murkowski for her willingness to cross party lines and support Democratic priorities and nominees.
Chesbro, a retired educator, ran on a platform of protecting abortion access, addressing climate change, and combating gun violence.
In the August primary, Murkowski commanded 45% of votes to Tshibaka’s 38.5%. Chesbro garnered less than 7% in the primary. Kelley had 2%.
The race was shaped by millions of dollars in spending by both candidates and outside groups. Murkowski had support from Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, whose leadership political action committee, the Senate Leadership Fund, spent over $5 million on ads attacking Tshibaka in the weeks leading up to the election. In response, the Alaska Republican Party, which last year censured Murkowski, voted to censure McConnell — the nation’s top elected Republican.
“What we couldn’t do with money, we made up with extra tough power,” Tshibaka told her supporters on Tuesday. “There are a lot of people in this room who put on some extra tough attitude and some Xtratuf boots, and knocked thousands of doors.”
Tshibaka, a former pastor, thanked her supporters for praying for her victory.
“We said, ‘what would you rather have, Kelly? $20 million or 20 million prayers?’ That one’s easy. You don’t win campaigns with $20 million,” Tshibaka said.