Any hopes of having a clear winner on election night in the U.S. Senate race in Alaska were dashed by the presence of write-in candidate, incumbent Republican Lisa Murkowski, who may turn out to have run the only successful write-in candidacy for the U.S. Senate since Strom Thurmond in 1954. Murkowski, after suffering a stinging defeat in the primary to Sarah Palin and Tea Party backed candidate Joe Miller, decided to mount a write-in campaign. With the help of huge donations of $1.2 million from Alaska Native corporations and other corporate sponsors, added to her million dollar war chest, Murkowski saturated the airwaves, filled mailboxes, created rubber bracelets, temporary tattoos, and plastered instructions on how to spell her name correctly on the sides of buses.
Her campaign had the effect not of splitting the Republican vote and ushering in a Democrat, but of splitting the "sanity vote" and potentially installing a candidate that the majority of Alaskans view as too extreme. A series of debacles in the Miller campaign, (the most recent of which was the arrest of a journalist who asked Miller questions after the candidate had stated that he would no longer talk to the press about his background) saw his disapproval ratings soar to more than 60% in recent days.
Murkowski managed to gain the support of many Democrats and left-leaning Independents who were desperate to keep Miller out, and were convinced a vote for Murkowski was the best way to do it. Whether that gamble paid off for voters has yet to be determined, though Murkowski's lead has widened as the vote count has continued into the morning.
So, what many postulate would have been a clear Democratic victory in a two-way race between Miller and his Democratic challenger Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, will now become a Republican on Republican free-for-all. The primary between the two was contentious and Miller's attorney (also Sarah Palin's attorney) Thomas Van Flein accused the Murkowski campaign of vote tampering, and the Miller camp requested that Alaska State Troopers be placed at all polling places. This race, in what amounts to a "do over" of the Republican primary promises to be no less combative.
The write-in candidate's lead ranged from 3-6% as the votes were tallied. It is still unclear how many of the write-in ballots were, in fact, for Murkowski, and how many will be thrown out because of voter error or the legal challenges that may arise.
Interestingly, whoever does walk away with the seat will not have the support of the majority of voters (Murkowski 41%, Miller 34%, McAdams 24%), and if one of the two Republicans claims victory, he or she will do so having alienated the other half of the party support. The hostility that exists between Miller and Murkowski supporters, and the ever-increasing divide between Tea Party and Corporate Republicans will make for a difficult reconciliation in the party, if there is one.
During the political knife fight between the two Republicans, Democratic candidate Scott McAdams remained virtually unscathed. The previously unknown McAdams saw approval ratings higher than either of the other two candidates, and in six weeks managed to prove himself a viable candidate and strong contender for a future run. His campaign managed to raise more than a million dollars (a significant amount for an Alaska race), mostly from donations of $200 or less. .
To add to the complication, the Alaska Division of Elections mailed out about 31,200 absentee ballots which remain to be counted. The first batch will not be counted until November 9, and some absentee ballots including those from voters in the military coming from overseas won't be counted until November 17. The count of the actual ballots which are identified now only as "write-in candidate" will begin on November 18, and will likely be scrutinized by Miller's legal team to determine "voter intent." Some leeway exists for misspellings, but there are no clear and specific rules for what might be accepted, and what might not.
A loss by Miller, many feel, will be a repudiation of Sarah Palin, indicating that her endorsement is not even enough to get a candidate elected in her own state. Palin's disapporval rating has surpassed her approval rating since quitting her position as governor in July of 2009. Palin backed off her initial enthusiastic support of Miller after he refused to answer clearly whether he thought she was qualified to be president, but did headline a rally for Miller the week before the election. Miller has since said that, "of course" Palin is qualified.
A difference of 13,588 votes separate the two Republican candidates, with 98.63% of the precincts tallied. Miller has not conceded the race, and Murkowski has not claimed victory. Not even the candidates know how the strangest and most dramatic Senate race in the nation will play out, or how long it will take before we have a clear winner. It could be a long fight.
Update: The Division of Elections has just announced to The Associated Press today that the counting of write-in ballots will be moved up to November 10, with the hope of having a clear winner as early as late next week.