Reporting from Washington — If Sen. Lisa Murkowski is to overcome a 1,668-vote deficit in her bid for a second full term, she needs substantial support from the thousands of absentee ballots yet to be counted in Alaska's surprisingly tight Republican Senate primary.
With all of the state's precincts reporting, lawyer Joe Miller appears in a strong position to maintain his narrow victory, with 51% of the vote out of about 92,000 ballots counted so far. But both candidates were preparing for a lengthy fight.
In an e-mail to supporters Wednesday, Miller said a recount was "imminent" and solicited contributions "so Alaskans can have a constitutional conservative voice in Washington."
Murkowski, meanwhile, sought help from the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which dispatched its general counsel to guide the state through the process of counting absentee ballots.
Gail Fenumiai, director of the state Elections Division, said that 9,500 of the 16,000 absentee ballots requested had been received so far. She cautioned that not all of those ballots would be guaranteed to be counted, and that many may not include votes in the Republican Senate primary.
None of those ballots will be opened until Tuesday.
State Republicans are increasingly skeptical of whether Murkowski can survive, but base any slim hopes on the possibility that the outstanding ballots may have been cast before a late, "tea party"-backed surge on Miller's behalf. It's estimated that Murkowski would need 3 out of every 5 votes among absentee ballots to survive.
"Absentees tend to reflect the state of mind at the time they were cast," said Dave Dittman, a Republican pollster not affiliated with either campaign. "There was a time she had a 2-to-1 lead."
If Miller prevails, both parties are preparing for a battle of unknown candidates. The Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, was scrambling to reorient a campaign that had been based on facing Murkowski in November.
"Everything changed with the possibility that she might not be the nominee," said one state Democratic Party strategist involved in the race.
National Democrats, meanwhile, have worked since Tuesday's vote to portray Miller's views as extreme, even among Alaska's Republican-leaning electorate. They say he has supported privatizing Social Security and has said unemployment compensation is "not constitutionally authorized."
Republicans dismiss the possibility of a second major upset in November, regardless of who wins their nomination.
"This seat will remain in Republican hands," John Cornyn (R- Texas), chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said in a statement.
One possible wild card: The state Libertarian Party told the Anchorage Daily News it was open to the possibility of nominating Murkowski as a third-party candidate, a notion her campaign has not ruled out.
Asked about that possibility Wednesday, Murkowski said it was "way, way, way too premature."
The target date for certifying the primary results is Sept. 15, but a state review board has an additional 10 days to conduct a canvass and review any disputed ballots.
If the Libertarian Party were to name Murkowski as its nominee, it would have to do so by Sept. 15, Fenumiai said.