Reporting from Seattle — Sen. Lisa Murkowski claimed victory Wednesday night over defiant challenger Joe Miller after building a decisive lead in near-final vote tallies.
The Republican incumbent persuaded more than 100,000 Alaskans to write in her name — a highly unusual feat in a statewide race. If her victory holds up through a possible recount and court challenge, she would become the first senator elected by write-in since 1954.
"I think we can say our miracle is here," she told about 50 cheering supporters in Anchorage as the state was completing its count of the last 700 absentee ballots. "Against all odds, we as Alaskans together made history. You made history."
Strom Thurmond was the last senator to win a write-in campaign.
Murkowski's apparent victory signals an important if symbolic loss for Alaska's former governor, Sarah Palin, who backed Miller and had appeared at a high-profile rally for him shortly before the election. The Fairbanks attorney waged an aggressive challenge financed in part by the Tea Party Express.
Miller has not conceded. In view of the closeness of the race, he said, he will consider requesting a hand recount, and will not decide until at least Friday.
"After all the absentee ballots are in and we've further reviewed the procedures and the results, we may ask for a recount," he said in a statement. "Less than 1% of the vote now separates my and Lisa Murkowski's total. If there is a recount and a consistent standard is applied to all the ballots, who knows what the difference would be."
But the Alaska Republican Party, which has supported Miller since his unexpected primary victory, urged him Wednesday to recognize the vote tallies and end his campaign "in a dignified manner."
"At this point we are comfortable calling this race. Lisa has won," party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said in a statement. "This was a free and fair election. It is now time to look forward.... We have every expectation that Joe will do the right thing."
By early Wednesday, the Murkowski campaign had concluded that Miller could not win. Even if the more than 8,100 write-in ballots he has challenged are thrown out — and that's unlikely, since most include minor misspellings of Murkowski's name and some are spelled perfectly — the incumbent still would be ahead. By midday, she had an edge of more than 2,200 votes over and above the challenged ballots.
"We are not going to wait for Joe Miller to concede. If the votes are over, the votes are over. And we've actually exceeded Joe's very narrow definition of the law" on which votes should be counted, said Murkowski's campaign spokesman, John Tracy.
"It's very clear that Alaskans have spoken, and in fact they've put it in writing," he said.
Miller campaign officials said they had found signs of "irregularities" in some aspects of the count, prompting them to try to conduct a thorough examination of selected precinct records turned over to the campaign this week by the state Division of Elections.
In affidavits included with a lawsuit the campaign has filed in state court, one Miller campaign observer reported that ballots opened for examination of write-in votes in Juneau appeared to have already been sorted -- despite the supposedly sealed envelope.
Another observer said several ballots cast in the town of Cordova with write-in votes for Murkowski all appeared to have similar handwriting.
"Our campaign has sworn affidavits identifying unsecured ballot boxes, other precincts where numerous ballots appear to be in the same handwriting, others where there is 100% voter turnout and still other precincts where the ballots were sent to the Division of Elections presorted by U.S. Senate candidate," Miller campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto said in a statement. "These and other irregularities give our campaign pause. Alaskans must be able to trust the results of its elections."
Miller campaign officials said they also were concerned that Murkowski benefited from a hand count of the write-in ballots. A similar procedure might have netted Miller some votes because of spoiled ballots that were rejected by the voting machines, they said.
Miller also has a suit pending in federal court seeking to hold the state to a strict spelling standard in counting write-in votes. If a judge agrees, some ballots would be thrown out — but probably not all of them.
Murkowski campaign officials think the math has become insurmountable.
"Of course, if he wants a recount, he's going to have to pay for it," Tracy said, noting that although the state initiates recounts on margins of a half a percentage point or less, Murkowski leads by more than 4 percentage points.
Murkowski, 53, a centrist Republican, ran with strong support from Alaska Native organizations, the state teachers and firefighters associations, and the Anchorage police employees association. Her substantial cash reserves were supplemented by wealthy Native corporations and other supporters.
"She had all the money, and she had the Alaska establishment behind her," said Michael Carey, columnist and former editorial page editor of the Anchorage Daily News.
Murkowski has been in the Senate since 2002, when her father — a former senator — became governor and appointed her to replace him. A few years later, Frank Murkowski lost the GOP gubernatorial primary to an obscure up-and-coming politician: Sarah Palin.
In the general election, Murkowski campaigned largely on fears of what Miller's views on shrinking federal entitlement programs would do to a state whose per capita share of federal spending is the biggest in the country. Miller warned Alaskans that their addiction to the federal dole would prove fatal when the federal treasury ran dry. He urged that the state marshal control of its own natural resources to generate revenue.
"Could Lisa Murkowski have won absent Joe Miller's terrifying segments of the electorate?" Carey said. "I doubt it."