Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Wednesday declared victory after apparently becoming the first U.S. Senate candidate in more than 50 years to win a write-in campaign, defeating her Tea Party rival after a painstaking, week-long count of hand-written votes.
The victory is a remarkable comeback for Murkowski, who lost to political newcomer Joe Miller in the GOP primary, and a humbling moment for Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor, 2008 GOP vice presidential candidate and Murkowski nemesis whose support was not enough to get Miller through an election in her own backyard.
"If you want something done go out and tell an Alaskan they can't do it," Murkowski said in her victory speech after flying to Alaska from Washington D.C. "Can you imagine over 100,000 people who wrote in the same name. Think about what that means ... Alaskans knew exactly what they were doing and they showed their intent with every letter they put on on that ballot."
She said the win feels a bit "mind-boggling." But she said Alaskans chose the "commonsense path."
She called for unity and wished Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams, who conceded last week, well. Then she called for a night of celebration, telling supporters that "against all odds, we as Alaskans, together, made history."
Miller said he may ask for a re-count. Miller has maintained he'll stop fighting if the math doesn't work in his favor, and his spokesman, Randy DeSoto, said late Wednesday that Miller will discuss matters with his campaign and legal teams, and "decisions will be made shortly."
The state GOP, which backed Miller, called the race for Murkowski and asked Miller to withdraw. Murkowski's run caused a rift, and state GOP chairman Randy Ruedrich — whom Miller once tried to oust — said the party "stands ready to embrace Lisa Murkowski as Alaska's only Republican U.S. senator."
"We call on Joe Miller to respect the will of the voters and end his campaign in a dignified manner," Ruedrich said.
Miller has ceded nothing, saying he hasn't decided whether to seek a re-count. His campaign posted on its website what it called five "myths" to get people to believe Miller had lost. In one of those, the campaign cites an outdated vote tally that puts Miller on top, when Murkowski surpassed Miller on Tuesday.
NBC News declared Murkowski the apparent winner in the race earlier Wednesday.
Murkowski's victory became clear when Alaska election officials confirmed they had only about 700 votes left to count, putting Murkowski in safe territory to win re-election. Murkowski is flying back from Washington to Alaska on Wednesday to make an "exciting announcement," proclaiming in an e-mail to supporters that the campaign "made history."
Murkowski has a lead of about 10,000 votes, a total that includes 8,153 ballots that Miller observers challenged over things like misspellings, extra words or legibility issues.
Murkowski in odd position in GOP
Miller had vowed to take legal action over what he contends is an unfair tally in Murkowski's favor, but maintained he'll stop fighting if the math doesn't work in his favor.
The write-in bid was an effort Murkowski almost didn't undertake after her stunning loss in the August primary to Miller. She went back and forth on whether to run but ultimately decided to wage a write-in campaign, saying she'd been encouraged by Alaskans who wanted a reasonable alternative between the conservative Miller and the little-known Democratic nominee.
Murkowski will return to Washington owing nothing to tea party activists, who largely opposed her, or to the Republican Party, which supported Miller after the primary. Though she plans to caucus with Republicans, she said she won't be beholden to any special interests or party — an initial sign that she may not try to reclaim her leadership post within the GOP conference. She voluntarily resigned it in deciding to make her outsider run.
She's already standing against the tea party on one hot issue — earmarks that allow lawmakers to steer federal spending to pet projects. Former GOP defenders including Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell now want to ban earmarking, but Murkowski say a ban won't do much to reduce federal spending and would leave bureaucrats to decide spending priorities.
Murkowski says she will approach issues as they come to her, and vowed to do what's best for Alaskans. She opposed a Republican-supported moratorium on earmark requests, a hot issue on Capitol Hill following the tea party surge in November's mid-term elections.
Historic write-in campaign
The victory followed the tedious process of ballot counters and observers scrutinizing the handwriting of thousands of ballots.
It was a process unlike any Alaska had seen, with the rules for conducting the election written as the race went on. That provided the crux of Miller's complaint — that the determination of votes was subjective and not strictly in line with election law.
Miller observers objected to thousands of ballots, including ones with a cursive letter or two, some reading "Lisa Murkowski Republican" and others with "Murkowski, Lisa."
The longshot nature of Murkowski's campaign seemed to invigorate the senator and her team. Her spokesman, Steve Wackowski, said he liked nothing more than hearing it couldn't be done — that that only made the campaign work harder in what amounted to a massive do-over after she flubbed the primary contest.
History wasn't on their side: Nothing of this scale had been pulled off in Alaska, and had rarely been accomplished elsewhere. The last Senate candidate to win as a write-in was Strom Thurmond in 1954, from South Carolina.
But Murkowski wasn't the typical write-in candidate: She enjoyed widespread name recognition as Alaska's senior senator and daughter of a local political dynasty, and had a $1 million-plus bank account.
She also showed a fire she'd lacked during the primary, when she fell victim to aggressive last-minute attack ads by the Tea Party Express.
This time, she pounced on Miller's every misstep. While she still stressed her seniority and her willingness to be a voice for all Alaskans, her speeches sounded more like rallies than lectures, generally ending in her leading a raucous chorus of supporters in spelling her name: "M-U-R, K-O-W, S-K-I."
"She just had a fire in her belly to do this not for herself but for the large number of people, literally hundreds, who begged her to do this," said John Tracy, who worked on her ad team.
Miller didn't do himself any favors after his upset of Murkowski in the August primary. Court documents were released showing Miller was suspended as a government employee for using work computers for partisan political work and lying about it. In other miscues, his security detail handcuffed a journalist asking questions at a town hall meeting, and it was revealed his family received many government handouts that he railed against as a tea party candidate.
Murkowski, 53, was appointed to the Senate seat long held by her father when he became governor in 2002; she won the seat in her own right two years later, in a narrow win over Democrat Tony Knowles, and her father was ousted in the 2006 gubernatorial primary by Palin, contributing to the icy relationship between the two families.