Reporting from Anchorage — The day before Tuesday's election, 30 mph winds and freezing rain buffeted the state capital of Juneau, but no matter: Mark Vinsel, head of the United Fishermen of Alaska, stood on a street corner waving signs for U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
A week or so earlier, Vinsel and some of his fellow commercial fishermen had mailed 4,000 postcards urging boat captains to write in Murkowski's name on the ballot. They organized phone trees to remind friends and crew members of the senator's work on Exxon Valdez oil spill tax benefits, fishing subsidies and salmon habitat protection. They handed out buttons at grocery stores and wrote out checks.
"We were standing on the street corner and the word came around that I guess when the Giants won the World Series in 1954, it was the only other time when somebody won [a Senate seat] on a write-in bid. I started feeling like the stars were in our favor," Vinsel said Wednesday. "We were cold and wet, but my wife said, 'No, we've got to stay; we've got to be the last people here.'"
It may have paid off: Write-in votes, most of which were likely cast for Murkowski, won 41% of the vote, compared with 34.3% for Republican challenger Joe Miller and 23.6% for Democrat Scott McAdams.
Miller's campaign has said it will challenge any improper ballots in an expedited count scheduled to get underway Nov. 10. Both sides are retaining legal teams in what could become a court fight over whittling down the incumbent senator's apparent edge of about 13,400 votes.
On Wednesday, Murkowski announced that she had retained attorney Benjamin Ginsberg to head her team overseeing Alaska's write-in ballot count. Ginsburg was counsel to the Bush-Cheney presidential campaign and played a key role in the 2000 Florida recount.
Miller, meanwhile, said many write-in votes were likely to be successfully challenged. "Previous write-in campaigns in Alaska have demonstrated that as much as 5% to 6% of returned ballots have not met the standard to be counted as a valid vote," he said in a statement. "As with any write-in campaign, the burden of execution rests with the candidate whose name is not on the ballot.... At this point, without a single write-in ballot counted, Lisa Murkowski has no claim on a victory."
Republican Party officials said they had no plans to go into the ballot count as Murkowski's adversaries.
"Getting into battles with the Murkowski camp at this point isn't going to create any more votes for us than it would have [had Miller won]," party spokesman Casey Reynolds said. "So I would imagine we're going to work cordially and professionally with them. Obviously we'll be coordinating with Joe Miller, but from here on in, I would imagine a cordial and professional relationship with the Murkowski campaign."
If Murkowski pulls off a victory, as many analysts outside Miller's camp expect, it will mark a significant milestone in modern electioneering: coming back after a primary loss in just eight weeks to elect a write-in candidate with a name even her mother might have trouble spelling.
Although Miller had a significant edge in many polls after the August primary, Murkowski countered it by swiftly raising an additional $1.3 million in mostly corporate donations; organizing a diverse coalition of teachers, fishermen, unions and some of the most powerful Alaska Native groups in the state; unleashing grass-roots campaigns such as the fishermen's; and, perhaps most important, buying billboards, print ads, TV ads and radio ads reminding voters not only to spell Murkowski's name correctly, but to fill in the oval bubble next to it.
That was key: Ballots would not be counted by the machines without it. Campaign officials said Wednesday it apparently worked, with only about 2,000 of more than 203,000 ballots cast in the Senate race uncountable.
"There was a ton of time and effort and resources invested in making sure people wrote out the name and filled in the bubble. I can't stress the huge hurdle that was to overcome — otherwise we might have 40,000 votes sitting in the hopper," a senior Murkowski campaign staffer said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the senator was making all official statements for the campaign.
Alaskans Standing Together, the so-called "Super PAC" led by Alaska Native corporations, channeled most of the corporate contributions and helped engineer a get-out-the-vote effort that resulted in unusually high turnout among Natives.
"We hired people that already live in the village and we paid them to go door to door. We took out print, TV and radio ads, even Spanish language spots — did a lot of the Twitter and Facebook and banner ads online," said the PAC's chairman, Will Anderson, who is also president of the Koniag Regional Corp. in Kodiak.
All the talk of the unexpectedness of the large number of write-in votes fell on deaf ears for veteran Republican pollster David Dittman, whose polls from Anchorage showed Murkowski out front from the beginning.