It wouldn’t be fair to history to judge Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s impressive write-in victory based on a dearth of precedence. No one had done it since South Carolina legend Strom Thurmond in 1954, but there also had never been a situation quite like Alaska.
The election has not been certified yet and Republican Joe Miller filed another lawsuit Thursday contesting the write-in vote-counting procedure, but with a 10,000-vote lead Murkowski appears to be headed back to Washington, D.C., in January for a second full term, keeping her seniority and the R after her name. How she pulled it off is now the story as Republicans look to avoid contentious primaries two years from now.
Thanks to her household name, sizable war chest and a more aggressive campaign than she was willing to run in the primary, the once-chastised Republican Senator was able to both educate voters on how to spell “M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I” on a write-in ballot and portray Miller as an unacceptable option.
“It was important to make sure that all Alaskans, regardless of your political stripe, felt that they had somebody who’s going to represent their best interests,” Murkowski said Thursday in an interview on “PBS NewsHour.” “I think that’s what this election was about.”
Miller’s inability to defeat the disadvantaged incumbent also delivered another blow to the record of tea party candidates in 2010. Several tea party candidates like Miller divided the GOP’s loyalties and ultimately cost the party victories in Senate races in Nevada, Colorado and Delaware, all states that political observers once believed were likely Republican pickups.
“As we move into 2012 and what’s going on with the presidential race, I think we’re going to be looking to see what is that level of strength and organization and commitment,” Murkowski said of tea party groups.
As of Friday, Murkowski led with 100,868 votes, followed by Miller with 90,740 votes and Democrat Scott McAdams, mayor of Sitka, with 60,007 votes.
“It all really comes down to the dynamics of the acceptability of the existing people on the ballot and the acceptability of the person running the write-in, and the balance of those,” said Alaska-based independent pollster Ivan Moore. “It was a perfect storm.”
Besides the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens (R), perhaps no name is better-known than this one. It’s been attached to this Senate seat since 1980, when Murkowski’s father, Frank Hughes Murkowski, won his first of four terms.
The elder Murkowski was elected governor in 2002 and appointed his daughter, then a state Representative, to fill his Senate seat. Murkowski won a full term in 2004, then watched her father be defeated for re-election by then-Wasilla Mayor Sarah Palin in the 2006 gubernatorial primary.
Had the Murkowski name not been so prevalent in Alaska for three decades, the Senator may not have been able to get more than 100,000 people to write it voluntarily on a ballot.
Murkowski also was a well-liked figure and boasted a 55 percent favorability rating in a poll taken just after her Sept. 17 write-in campaign announcement. Doing so was a last resort, as her only other option after losing the primary to Miller was to be drafted by the Libertarian Party, which the party declined to do.
“Alaskans can’t figure out how to fill in an oval and spell M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I?” the Senator asked in her stunning announcement speech. Those nine letters were repeated in television ads, campy YouTube videos and text messages to supporters as Murkowski launched an educational campaign, explaining how to fill in the oval on the ballot and write in her name.
She also went directly after Miller, a Yale-educated lawyer with no political experience who ultimately had a broader national base of conservative support than he had backing him in Alaska.
On Murkowski’s side in that effort was the amount of money she had left over from the primary. She reported nearly $2 million on hand in her pre-primary Federal Election Commission filing — though some of that was spent by the Aug. 24 contest, as it became clear that Miller had a serious shot of winning.
Most write-ins don’t enter the general with that kind of cash, and it’s worth betting that none has ever had the kind of financial backing from an outside group freed from federal regulations on spending.
Thanks to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Alaska Native corporations were able to form a political action committee called Alaskans Standing Together and donate unlimited funds to the PAC.
Alaskans Standing Together spent more than $1.2 million on Murkowski’s behalf and was listed as a top reason for the Senator’s success by every Alaska insider that spoke with Roll Call about the race. It acted in essence as a second campaign, running TV, radio and print ads; passing out buttons and wristbands; and making robocalls.
“In our state, a million dollars is an awful lot of money,” said Alaska-based Republican pollster Marc Hellenthal, who polled for the group. “If you have an independent group spending over a million dollars they can do a lot of damage.”
Some of that damage was self-imposed by Miller, whose campaign mishandled two events that insiders say severely affected the way voters saw him.
Miller’s personnel files from his work as an attorney for the Fairbanks North Star Borough were released a week before Election Day, rather than months earlier when four news organizations filed a lawsuit to have them released.
The records showed that Miller was disciplined for using borough computers for political purposes, but the release of documents left more questions than answers as numerous passages were partially redacted.
Miller admitted to reporters soon after the documents were released that it was a mistake not to have done so right away. Unfortunately for him, the document release was just the latest in a string of bad press.
Two weeks earlier, private security for Miller had handcuffed a journalist at a town hall meeting held in a local middle school as he had attempted to interview Miller. The Alaska Dispatch editor was attempting to ask Miller what was in his borough employment records — a week after Miller announced he would no longer answer personal questions from Alaska reporters.
Following those events, Miller’s negative poll ratings increased, and a path to victory for Murkowski began to crystallize.
“If you run a very low-key primary campaign and your challenger runs a better campaign and has significantly more independent expenditures, you have a chance at losing. So that sets the stage for her loss,” Alaska GOP Chairman Randy Ruedrich said of Murkowski’s underwhelming primary performance.
“Then, she runs a write-in campaign,” Ruedrich continued. “There is a significant amount of background material on [Miller] that is disclosed and is not handled terribly well. And the result is a narrow victory the other way. It’s just that simple.”
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.