Senate races

Murkowski trails Tea Party-backed challenger as Alaska votes tallied

Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) is in danger of becoming the third incumbent senator to lose in the 2010 election cycle.

Attorney Joe Miller appears on the verge of a stunning upset in Alaska’s Republican Senate primary, but the race has not been officially called and could be headed for a recount.

{mosads}The Tea Party-backed candidate leads Murkowski by less than 3,000 votes, with 77 percent of precincts reporting.

The final results may not be known for a week, according to the Anchorage Daily News.

The Alaska Division of Elections said more than 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and, as of Monday night, only 7,600 had been returned, the paper reported. With the margin so close and absentee ballots coming in until Sept. 8, it could hold up final results.

The race is reminiscent of Rep. Don Young’s (R) primary in 2008, which ended in a recount and dragged on for some three weeks after Election Day. Young was eventually declared the winner by just over 500 votes.

Murkowski wasn’t initially expected to face a strong challenge in 2010, but Miller’s campaign got an early jolt from former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express.

While Tea Party activists have provided the fuel for several primary upsets this election season, the conventional wisdom ahead of Alaska’s contest was that it would mark a rare success for the incumbent this primary season.

Murkowski did not shy away from her Washington credentials on the campaign trail, arguing that her position in the Senate is crucial for the state. Murkowski is the ranking Republican on the Energy and Natural Resources Committee and, as such, is in a prime position to deliver for Alaska, which is heavily reliant on the oil industry. Murkowski also has a seat on the Appropriations Committee.

Ahead of the primary, Miller’s campaign and the Tea Party Express were claiming last-minute momentum and touting internal polls that they said had the race much closer than public polling showed.

Several public polls, however, showed Murkowski with a strong lead.

The Tea Party Express also dropped more than $500,000 on TV and radio ads to aid Miller’s campaign, and he had the backing of Palin and of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, both rumored presidential contenders in 2012.

Palin, who endorsed Miller in June, recorded a last-minute robocall for the campaign that went out to voters Monday. She also posted a fundraising appeal on her Facebook page Monday trumpeting Miller’s efforts to raise $30,000 for a late TV buy. She did not campaign with him, but she did tweet early Wednesday morning: “Keeping fingers crossed, powder dry, prayers upward.”

Miller told the Anchorage Daily News Tuesday that Palin was key to his success and said GOP primary voters responded to his message of fiscal discipline and smaller government.

“I think that they see the entitlement state, the federal government, growing too large,” Miller said. “They understand because they have to balance their checkbooks.”

It’s hard to accuse Murkowski of being caught flat-footed by the challenge, though. Given 2010’s brutal anti-incumbent environment, Murkowski took Miller seriously. She spent more than $2 million on the primary, including a last-minute attack ad aimed at Miller that might have worked against her.

Murkowski launched an ad Monday that featured an exchange between conservative Alaska radio host Dan Fagan and Miller. In it, Fagan angrily accuses Miller of distorting Murkowski’s record on healthcare.

But the radio host endorsed Miller against Murkowski, labeling her “liberal Lisa” in a column on the website of The Alaska Standard.

Fagan also lambasted Murkowski during his radio show Tuesday afternoon, accusing her of ducking debates with Miller.

 “It is a ruling class mentality,” Fagan said of Murkowski. “It is the mentality of ‘I’m Lisa Murkowski. My daddy was a senator. I’m a senator. We are the royal family of Alaska and you will vote for me.’ “

Murkowski was appointed to the seat in a controversial move by her father, former Gov. Frank Murkowski, in 2002. Despite vows from both parties that she would be ousted in 2004, Murkowski won her bid for a full term that year.

There’s no way to know for sure whether the last-minute flap over the Murkowski attack ad and Fagan’s backing of Miller was in any way conclusive, but it likely added to Miller’s late momentum.

Another potential factor that may have worked in Miller’s favor Tuesday was a ballot measure that would mandate parental notification of abortion for teenagers age 17 and under. Miller told the Anchorage Daily News Tuesday that supporters of the measure likely helped increase his vote share against Murkowski.

Murkowski would be the third sitting senator to lose a primary challenge this year. Sens. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) and Bob Bennett (R-Utah) both lost their reelection bids.

The winner of the GOP nomination in Alaska is in a strong position for the general election and will face Democratic nominee Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams in his first run for federal office.

Tags Don Young Lisa Murkowski
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