Reporting from Anchorage — The three-way slugfest that many here are calling Alaska's "stranger than fiction" U.S. Senate race settled down Tuesday in a crawl to the polls along slushy streets blanketed with fresh snow, with some campaigns offering voters free rides to the polls.
But early voting via absentee ballots already has been heavier than usual, and Alaskans are hardly wimps when it comes to weather — all sides were bracing for a tense photo finish in one of the nation's most closely watched Senate campaigns, in which Sen. Lisa Murkowski is waging a write-in campaign to hold on to her seat against nominees from both major parties.
Sign wavers for Murkowski and official Republican nominee Joe Miller were out in the snowy darkness for the morning commute. All three candidates staged last-minute rallies Monday night touting a confusing array of last-minute polls that appeared to give each of the three a fighting chance.
So close is the race that the victor may not even be known Tuesday night — a strong write-in showing for Murkowski, who has held the seat as a Republican since 2002, could extend counting of the votes for weeks and trigger lawsuits that delay results even longer.
"We have a viable three-candidate race for the U.S. Senate. We have never had a viable three-candidate race, making it extremely difficult to predict," said Gerald McBeath, political science professor at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks.
Alaskans appear more than ready for a conclusion to the contentious race, which in its final week has featured lawsuits over write-in lists; a last-minute siege of new, competing write-in candidates organized by a talk show host as an act of "civil disobedience"; and a deluge of accusatory TV ads paid for by national political parties.
By Monday night, all three candidates had ratcheted down the vitriol and were focusing their supporters on what really counts Tuesday: getting their voters to the polls.
"Joe Miller doesn't [any longer] have an eight-point or a 12-point lead. So those Democratic voters who were once scared of Joe [and tempted to vote for Murkowski to stop him] can come home and vote their values and not their fears," said Scott McAdams, the former mayor of Sitka who has gone from being a token opponent in a sure-shot reelection for Murkowski to a true contender in the race.
The dynamics have changed exponentially since the spring primary campaign, which Murkowski coasted through, seeming not to consider Miller a serious contender.
Instead, the Tea Party Express funded a full-scale, last-minute attack on Murkowski's record of voting with the "Republican in name only" leadership in Washington and Miller won the August primary, forcing Murkowski into a write-in campaign that most predicted in the early days was doomed to fail.
Since then, moderate Republicans have flocked to her side, while McAdams has been gaining momentum of his own in a campaign that has highlighted both Murkowski and Miller as too conservative for Alaska and not responsive to Alaska's continuing need for federal budget allocations.
Miller, meanwhile, has withered somewhat under an onslaught of local press reports highlighting problems with his employment as an assistant borough attorney in Fairbanks and his family's reliance on some of the very government benefit programs that he has vowed to roll back if elected to the Senate.
At a rally Monday night at a downtown Anchorage pub, some of the biggest cheers of the night went to country western singer Andy Griggs, performing for Miller's supporters: "I think somebody's gonna make the White House understand, there's a whole lot more of us than there is them…. And if you've got a problem with my kind, then you can kiss us where the sun don't shine."
Miller himself struck a more upbeat note.
"We're going to send a signal to D.C. that change is coming!" he said.
Across town at her Anchorage campaign headquarters, Murkowski told her supporters that the finish line was in sight.
"Eight weeks ago, they said, 'Ah, they can't do that in Alaska — they can't do it.' And we're showing them how it is done," she said.
Polls close at 8 p.m. Alaska time, with the first results due about an hour later. But state election officials say they will only count write-in votes individually if the total number cast is at least within 5% of the top vote-getter.
That process won't get under way until all of the state's thousands of absentee ballots are tallied, meaning final results could be delayed until late November, if neither Miller nor McAdams grabs a clear lead tonight.