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Handicapper Headache: What About Alaska?

Can Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was denied renomination by Alaska Republicans, win as a write-in candidate in November? Obviously, it’s a long shot, as is any write-in campaign, but is it impossible?

I start off skeptical, but I’m not sure.

For anyone who doesn’t know about Alaska politics, let’s just say that at one time it was mind-bogglingly weird. Partisan attachment in the state was remarkably weak, with voters even electing the Alaska Independence Party nominee, former Republican Gov. Walter Hickel, as governor in 1990.

On some levels, Alaska is your archetypically Republican state. It hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House since 1972 and, until Mark Begich was elected narrowly in 2008, hadn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1974.

Gov. Sean Parnell (R), who was elected lieutenant governor but ascended to the state’s top job when Sarah Palin (R)resigned, is a clear favorite to win in November.

But in other ways, Alaska can still surprise you.

Republicans lost five straight gubernatorial elections from 1982 through 1998, in part because of divisions within the GOP. And while Republicans hold a narrow advantage in the state House, the state Senate is run by a coalition of 10 Democrats and six Republicans.

Joe Miller, the tea party-backed conservative who won the GOP Senate nomination, drew 51 percent of the vote to Murkowski’s 49 percent, a 2,006-vote majority in the closed primary.

But Murkowski didn’t run the aggressive kind of campaign that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did, for example, so it’s hard to know how many Murkowski supporters didn’t bother to turn out because they figured that she would coast to victory.

There are obviously logistical challenges to running as a write-in, but spelling the Senator’s name isn’t one of them. Election officials have already indicated they will count votes for her if voters’ intentions are clear.

GOP strategists agree that Murkowski has an opening, but they aren’t sure how much.

Some think she is tilting at windmills. One operative who knows the state’s politics well thinks that “while she’ll do better than the usual write-in, she really won’t be competitive in any way.”

“Polling will probably overstate her strength,” the same observer said. “It’s easier to tell a pollster that you are going to write her in than it is actually to write her in.”

Alaska Republicans have always been split between moderates and social conservatives, and many Alaska voters see their representatives’ role at least in part as “bringing back the bacon,” a job that the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) have taken seriously and for which they were rewarded re-election after re-election.

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