Murkowski Race With Palin-Backed Foe Awaits Absentees

Senator Lisa Murkowski
Senator Lisa Murkowski, seen here, was trailing in an unexpectedly close contest with a political newcomer, Joe Miller. Photographer: Brendan Hoffman/Bloomberg

Senate Republicans sent their top campaign lawyer to advise Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski about the state’s count of absentee ballots as the Libertarian Party considered endorsing her if she loses the party primary.

The absentee votes will determine whether Murkowski, a Republican seeking a second term, withstands the challenge from an insurgent candidate endorsed by Sarah Palin and the Tea Party movement.

Murkowski, 53, who followed her father into office, is trailing political newcomer Joe Miller, 43, a Gulf War Army veteran and Yale Law School graduate, by 1,668 votes with all election precincts reporting. Thousands of absentee votes remain to be counted, beginning Aug. 31, before the primary is decided.

“It ain’t over yet, folks,” Murkowski said yesterday at a news conference in Anchorage, according to the AP.

Sean Cairncross, the general counsel of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, will travel to Alaska to “provide strategic advice” to Murkowski, Brian Walsh, a spokesman for the committee, said.

Under Discussion

The Libertarian Party “is talking about” putting Murkowski on the ballot as its Senate candidate in the event she loses the primary, the party’s state chairman, Scott Kohlhaas, said in an e-mail. Until the results are known, “it’s all speculation,” he said.

Asked about a third-party candidacy, Murkowski said yesterday “she was all about observing the counting process through Tuesday” when absentee ballots are tabulated, according to her campaign manager, John Bitney.

Turnout for a ballot proposition that required parental notification of teen-agers seeking abortion “helped Joe Miller in a big way,” Kohlhaas said. The proposition passed with 55 percent of the vote.

Miller, helped in the race by former Alaska Governor Palin, the 2008 Republican nominee for vice president, had said Murkowski was “not Republican enough.”

Elsewhere, the primary results were more predictable. Arizona Senator John McCain cruised to a primary victory in his bid for a fifth term. In Florida, there will be a three-way race for an open Senate seat among Democratic Representative Kendrick Meek, Republican former state House Speaker Marco Rubio and Governor Charlie Crist, a Republican turned independent.

Tea Party Support

Miller’s surprise showing in Alaska was spurred by support from the Tea Party Express, which is seeking to replicate wins in Nevada and Kentucky for a loose-knit coalition that opposes higher taxes and government spending.

Murkowski was appointed to the Senate to complete the term of her father, Frank Murkowski, who resigned in 2002 to become governor. She was elected in 2004.

The winner in the Murkowski-Miller contest will face Democrat Scott McAdams, former mayor of Sitka, in the Nov. 2 election.

At least 7,600 absentee ballots were returned to Alaska election officials and have yet to be counted, the Anchorage Daily News reported, citing the state Division of Elections.

The Tea Party Express’s political action committee poured money into advertising and e-mail blasts for Miller, who criticized Murkowski for her support of the 2008 federal government bank bailout. The group spent more than $400,000 on such independent expenditures for the race this month, reports to the Federal Election Commission show.

Assist From Palin

The challenger was also aided by the support from Palin, who defeated Murkowski’s father in the 2006 Republican gubernatorial primary.

Murkowski “did go along to get along” with Democrats and “was voted by some publications as one of the most liberal Republicans in the Senate,” Palin said today in a radio interview with the Fundamental Broadcast Network. “And here in Alaska we said no, not when we have a good choice in Joe Miller.”

When Palin resigned as governor in 2009 mid-way through her term, Murkowski rebuked her, saying, “I’m deeply disappointed that the governor has decided to abandon the state and her constituents before her term has concluded.”

Texas Senator John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, suggested yesterday that the party would be united for the general election. “One thing is clear: This seat will remain in Republican hands this November,” Cornyn said in a statement.

Anti-Incumbent Trend

McCain coasted to victory after spending some $20 million and adopting a hard line on his signature issue of immigration.

The 2008 Republican presidential nominee defeated former congressman J.D. Hayworth, withstanding an anti-incumbent trend that threatened his candidacy earlier this year. He received 56 percent of the primary vote to Hayworth’s 32 percent, according to the AP.

Jim Deakin, a contractor with no experience in elective politics who competed with Hayworth for the support of Tea Party activists, had 11.5 percent, AP said.

“We won an important victory, for which I am truly thankful” after a “hard-fought primary,” McCain told supporters. “This will be a consequential election” because of the nation’s “staggering unemployment, a devastated housing market” and “a river of red ink that threatens your prosperity.”

McCain’s Campaign

McCain, 73, modified his immigration position to repair his standing with conservatives, said Margaret Kenski, a Republican pollster in Tucson. He also flooded the airwaves with “devastating” advertisements, painting Hayworth as a “fake conservative” who once peddled ways to earn free money from the government on late-night infomercials, she said.

“He probably spent more money than he needed to in an Arizona primary,” said Kenski. “He didn’t leave anything to chance.”

At the same time, McCain, who once supported giving a pathway to U.S. citizenship for undocumented aliens, “shifted his position on immigration and said, ‘Give the people what they want, give them a fence first,’” said Kenski.

Democratic National Committee spokesman Hari Sevugan said in an e-mailed statement that, to win the primary, McCain became “a rubber stamp for the extreme right wing.” Sevugan said that “the complete takeover of the Republican Party by the Tea Party has included taking over the soul” of “a man who once reveled in being a maverick.”

Campaigning With Brewer

Leading up to the primary, McCain campaigned with Arizona Governor Jan Brewer and supported her decision to sign into law a bill that authorized police to check the status of anyone they suspected was an illegal immigrant. A federal judge last month barred Arizona from enforcing key parts of that law after the Obama administration sued the state.

Along the way, McCain alienated some old supporters, including many Hispanics. Tommy Espinoza, who testified to McCain’s pro-immigrant policies at the 2008 Republican National Convention, said the senator had made a “radical departure.” McCain’s new posture was “heart-wrenching,” said Espinoza, of Raza Development Fund in Phoenix.

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