Reporting from Seattle — The U.S. Senate race in Alaska was turned on its head in August, when Tea Party Express-backed candidate Joe Miller upset incumbent Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary. On Friday evening, Murkowski stunned the state again with a decision to mount a write-in campaign to hold on to her seat.
"This is a statement we must make for Alaskans. Together we can do what they say cannot be done. Alaska is not fair game for outside extremists. We are smarter than that … and we will not be had," Murkowski said as cheering supporters in Anchorage shouted, "Run, Lisa, run!"
The announcement sets up a bruising battle between moderates and the conservative "tea party" movement on the rich Republican turf of Alaska, and provides a potential new ray of opportunity for the Democrats, who now stand to capitalize on intramural turmoil within the dominant GOP.
Analysts said the eight-year incumbent has a tough road ahead to edge into Miller's already commanding lead.
"She's taking on the winner of the Republican primary, and she's not going to have the support she thought she would have," cautioned David Dittman, a veteran GOP pollster in Alaska.
The national Republican leadership has lined up behind Miller, a Fairbanks lawyer who has called for giving Alaska control of the millions of acres of federal lands within its borders and who wants to phase out Social Security and Medicare.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) reiterated his support for Miller and said Friday night that he accepted Murkowski's resignation from her Senate leadership position as vice chairman of the Republican Conference. The Republican National Committee echoed that support.
Likewise, the state GOP condemned Murkowski's decision. Party chairman Randy Ruedrich noted that Republicans turned out in record numbers for the August primary.
"I was hoping Sen. Murkowski would recognize this fact and acknowledge this election was not an anomaly, misunderstanding, or mistake, but rather the definitive decision of a large plurality of Alaska primary voters. That decision deserves her respect," Ruedrich said.
And he issued a warning: "Lisa has chosen to run against the Republican Party and its primary voters. We will treat her candidacy as we would anyone who chooses to oppose our party's nominees."
A spokesman for Tea Party Express, a Sacramento-based political action committee, vowed in an e-mail to supporters to defeat Murkowski again.
"These establishment politicians are once again demonstrating the utmost hubris and contempt towards the people they are supposed to serve," said Joe Wierzbicki. "But fear not, fellow patriots, because we here at the Tea Party Express will not stand for this."
Democrats have publicly said they are heartened at Murkowski's move, which almost surely will split the Republican vote. But it also could draw large numbers of Democrats into voting for Murkowski as a more viable alternative to Miller than the relatively unknown Democratic nominee, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams.
In a statement, McAdams discounted Murkowski's bid: "The race is really between Joe Miller — an extremist candidate funded by outside organizations — and me."
Murkowski, originally appointed by her father, Frank Murkowski, to his own unexpired Senate seat when he became governor in 2002, was said to be shocked by her primary loss to Miller by only about 2,000 of the approximately 110,000 votes cast. Analysts said she had run a lackluster campaign and failed to answer Miller's barrage of attacks.
Since then, striking out in exploring a bid on the Libertarian Party ticket, she has agonized over mounting a write-in effort — a potentially difficult enterprise because it requires voters not only to write her name in some recognizable form, but to fill in an oval next to it.
"I think she's moved back and forth in her own mind.... Yesterday in the afternoon and evening, she was contacting people to appear with her today to show solidarity and the breadth of support — people who had some kind of standing and were recognizable — but from what I understand, a number of people have declined to appear with her," Dittman said.
But nearly 2,000 people signed on to a Facebook page urging Murkowski to run, along with a flood of e-mails, phone calls and personal entreaties.
Murkowski, who has about $1 million in the bank to finance the six-week campaign, said she was ready to take on Miller and his growing army of support.
"In the primary campaign we talked about ourselves … but we didn't educate Alaskans about the extremist views that were held by Mr. Miller, and when he swung, I didn't swing back. Well, ladies and gentlemen, friends and neighbors, the gloves are off," Murkowski declared.