Lisa Murkowski's political fate on hold until next month

Lisa Murkowski and Joe Miller will have to wait until next month to find out who has won the Senate race in Alaska. That's when state elections workers will begin to count absentee ballots. They have until Sept. 8 to deliver a final tally.

Rob Stapleton/AP
Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) of Alaska, gives a brief press conference on Aug. 25 in Anchorage, Alaska saying that she was not conceding the results of the primary election held on Aug 24. Murkowski is trailing opponent Joe Miller and pointed to other Alaska elections that have required absentee votes to win.
Sam Harrel/Fairbanks Daily News-Miner/AP
Alaska Senate candidate Joe Miller makes phone calls from his law office in Fairbanks, Alaska, on Thursday, Aug. 26. Miller stunned political pundits this week with his lead over Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary.

A conservative Alaska lawyer credits his primary vote lead over US Sen. Lisa Murkowski largely to "common sense" voters dissatisfied with the direction taken by Congress and President Obama.

"Everybody understands the entitlement state is over," Joe Miller told The Associated Press on Thursday. "We can't continue to expend at the rate we're expending."

Miller of Fairbanks, stunned political pundits this week with his 1,688-vote lead over Murkowski in the Republican primary.

Murkowski, who was appointed by her father in 2002 when he was elected Alaska governor, was heavily favored to win — and still could. She expects to rally when thousands of absentee ballots are counted.

Murkowski asked the top attorney for the national Republicans' Senate campaign committee to help her campaign prepare for tallying about 20,000 absentee and questioned ballots.

Miller called the involvement the "power of the incumbency being brought to play." He said he expects a similar vote gap to remain when all the votes are counted. If there is not, "then we'll absolutely want to take a closer look and see if Alaskans' will has been thwarted by some sort of lawyer game."

Miller said in a prepared statement later that the purpose of the committee is not to pick favorites or to send lawyers to try to "manipulate" the outcome. "We are very aware that there may be some attempt here to skew the results. I hope that is not the case. Alaskans won't stand for any post-election foul play," Miller said.

Besides disgruntled voters, Miller said his campaign also was boosted by the endorsement of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the involvement of the Tea Party Express, which contributed nearly $600,000 to his campaign.

Another helpful factor in Tuesday's election was an initiative to require parental notification for minors to obtain abortions, he said. The measure, which passed, likely drew more conservative voters to the polls.

Miller lost his first foray to elected office when he sought a state House seat in 2004, but the Senate run is his first statewide campaign. He credits the dedication and energy of his volunteers for making a difference this time.

"It truly was spreading the word, getting out the signs, making sure that people knew about the candidacy and the direction this state could go to, I think, help secure its future," Miller said.

Carl Shepro, a political science professor at the University of Alaska Anchorage, said another likely factor that helped Miller was a barrage of ads that labeled Murkowski as a liberal and questioned her voting record on federal health care reform. Shepro believes a lot of people bought the message.

"Some of the ads were misleading," he said. "It was very clearly the case that she is not how he depicted her. Most of her votes have not been supportive of Democratic positions."

The race's outcome will remain in limbo at least until Tuesday. That's when state elections workers will begin to count absentee ballots. They have until Sept. 8 to deliver a final tally.

Whatever returns there are, Miller said many veterans and active military members vote by absentee ballot and he expects their vote to favor him. Murkowski spokesman Steve Wackowski said the senator expects the absentees to bring her victory.

"We had a very robust absentee push," he said. "We're counting on the gap to close. We're optimistic."

A tie would automatically trigger a recount, state Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai said. If the difference is less than 0.5 percent or fewer than 20 votes, a defeated candidate could request a recount at no charge. With a larger vote difference, a recount would cost $15,000.

Miller or Murkowski will face Scott McAdams, who won the Democratic primary, in the Nov. 2 election. Alaska Democratic Party Chairwoman Patti Higgins quelled rumors that the party would seek a higher profile candidate than McAdams, the mayor of Sitka.

"We are full bore ahead with Scott McAdams," she said.

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