'The gloves are off': Murkowski pursues write-in bid against Tea Party favorite

Declaring that Alaska "cannot accept the extremist views of Joe Miller," Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) said Friday that she intends to run as an independent write-in candidate this November.

Murkowski called her decision "a difficult one," but cited "an outpouring of support from Alaskans all over the state" as a primary driver of her decision.

Earlier this month, Murkowski conceded a stunning defeat to Tea Party-backed Joe Miller in the state's Republican Senate primary, but after declining to endorse Miller, speculation raged that she would remain in the race this fall either under the banner of the Libertarian Party or as a write-in. Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams is the Democratic Party's nominee.

Despite meeting with the Libertarian Party's Senate nominee, David Haase, Murkowski said earlier this week that she would not run on the party's ballot line in November. That left an independent write-in bid as Murkowski's final option, and Murkowski admitted that as of Thursday night she was still undecided.

But on Friday, Murkowski was unequivocal -- the incumbent sent a shot across the bow of both Miller and the Tea Party Express, declaring "the gloves are off."

She again hit the Tea Party Express and went after former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, labeling herself "one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska."

Murkowski referenced her pre-primary pledge to support the eventual Republican nominee, calling it a statement she regrets and saying, "it was made before I became aware of the last-minute name calling and mudslinging" from outside conservative groups.

The senator warned that a write-in bid wouldn't be easy, but said the logistics aren't as daunting as some claim. "Alaskans can't figure out how to fill in an oval and spell M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I ?" she asked.

The decision to mount an independent write-in bid comes amid staunch opposition from her party's leadership in Washington and the national party made it clear this week that Murkowski would be largely on her own this fall in such a bid.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell made clear Friday night that the party is backing Miller and Murkowski would be out of the leadership if successful.

"I informed her that by choosing to run a campaign against the Republican nominee, she no longer has my support for serving in any leadership roles, and I have accepted her letter of resignation from Senate leadership," McConnell said in a statement.

Senate Republican leaders previously said they intend to strip Murkowski of her leadership role if she were to move forward with a write-in and several of her fellow Republican senators, including Sens. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.), Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), told the Hill earlier this week that they will stand behind Miller despite their personal regard for Murkowski.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a strongly worded warning Thursday to the incumbent that the national party remains behind Tea Party-backed Joe Miller.

"If Sen. Murkowski is truly committed to doing ‘what is right’ for her state, then we hope that she will step forward and fully endorse Joe Miller’s candidacy," NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh said in a statement released Thursday. "No matter what Sen. Murkowski decides for her own political interests in the future, Republicans are united behind Joe Miller’s nomination, and we are confident that he will be elected Alaska’s next U.S. senator in November."

The Tea Party Express, the group that spent some $600,000 on TV and radio ads to help Miller defeat Murkowski in the primary, upped its rhetoric Friday after learning of Murkowski's write-in plans.

Tea Party Express spokesman Levi Russell called Murkowski "a power-hungry tyrant" and said, "There is no limit to how hard we will push back against her in the general election."

After her defeat, Murkowski decried the influence of the California-based group, saying in a statement that the Alaska Republican Party was "hijacked by the Tea Party Express, an outside extremist group."

Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R), who backed Miller in the primary and has a longstanding political feud with the Murkowskis, reacted to the news of Murkowski's decision after a speech to Republicans in Iowa on Friday.

“It’s a futile effort on her part, it really is,” Palin told reporters in Des Moines, according to CNN. “She certainly has the right to do so, but Joe Miller is the right person to lead the state and this country.”

Democrats used Murkowski's decision to highlight GOP infighting, with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee calling the write-in bid "just the latest example of the Republican Party cannibalizing itself. From the tip of Florida, to the beaches in Delaware, all the way to the islands off Alaska, the Republican Party heads into November with deep and serious divisions," said DSCC Press Secretary Deirdre Murphy in a statement.

The most immediate question now becomes whether or not Murkowski can actually win as a write-in, something those close to her campaign say is absolutely the case.

The hurdles are numerous: Murkowski will have to spend a good deal of money educating voters on the write-in process and observers say that even the best information campaign won't prevent likely pitfalls. Voters will not only have to write Murkowski's name on the ballot, but they are required to fill out a corresponding oval for the vote to count.

The race could also end up in a costly legal battle with Murkowski and Miller over voter intent on write-in ballots. If a Murkowski backer were to write "Lisa M." on a ballot, for example, would that count?

Two things Murkowski does have going for her: name recognition and money. She's sitting on some $1.5 million, which is plenty of money in Alaska and unlike in the GOP primary, she is ready to spend it hitting Miller ahead of November.

Alaska-based pollster Marc Hellenthal said private polling that he has conducted on a three-way race between Murkowski, Miller and McAdams shows "a horserace that's very much up for grabs."

J. Taylor Rushing and Sean J. Miller contributed to this story

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