Lisa Murkowski’s lonely Alaska fight against the tea party

Is Lisa Murkowski becoming her own kind of 'mama grizzly' in Alaska? Or is her decision to fight the tea party as a write-in US Senate candidate a lost cause?

Michael Dinneen/AP
U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, (R) of Alaska, climbs to the stage in preparation to announce her write-in campaign Friday in Anchorage. In August, she was defeated in the Republican primary by tea party favorite Joe Miller.

Is Lisa Murkowski becoming her own kind of “mama grizzly” in Alaska? Or is the US senator’s decision to fight back against the tea party a lost cause at a time when most elected Republicans make at least a show of cozying up to the political insurgency?

Senator Murkowski has decided to run as a write-in candidate against Joe Miller, the tea party-backed candidate who thumped Murkowski in the GOP primary last month. Democrat Scott Adams is in the race too, but it’s really a grudge match against Miller, the tea party movement itself, and Sarah Palin (who backed Miller and with whom Murkowski has had run-ins before).

“The Alaska Republican Party was hijacked by the Tea Party Express, an outside extremist group,” Murkowski said a few days ago. (The California-based Tea Party Express spent nearly $600,000 on Miller’s primary campaign to oust Murkowski. It also helped finance Christine O’Donnell’s GOP primary win over Mike Castle in Delaware this week.)

Can Murkowski pull it off? The odds are against her. Most write-in efforts go nowhere. Some analysts suggest she could split the Republican vote, handing the Senate seat to Democrat Adams.

But Murkowski has several things going for her. For one, her’s is a very familiar name in Alaska politics. Her father Frank Murkowski held statewide office for 25 years – first as a US senator, then as the state’s governor.

Also, some pollsters give her a fighting chance, especially in a state with a small population and a small-town, very personal feel to its politics.

Nate Silver, who analyzes polls at the closely-watched website, says Murkowski shouldn’t be ruled out

“Can Ms. Murkowski win? Sure she can,” Silver writes in his regular New York Times column. “There is plenty of precedent for write-ins being elected to the Congress, although fewer have done so successfully in recent years.”

Alaska Republican pollster Dave Dittman’s survey of Alaskans who voted in the last election showed Murkowski winning 37 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate with Miller getting 32 percent and Adams trailing with 19 percent.

"I'd say it'd at least be a toss up," Dittman told "I wouldn't say that she's not the favorite."

Shortly after Murkowski’s primary defeat, Public Policy Polling (PPP) had Miller ahead of Murkowski by just four percentage points in a three-way race. But that presumed she’d jump the GOP and run on the Libertarian ticket, which she’s now ruled out.

More in her favor, PPP had Murkowski enjoying a better favorability rating in Alaska than Miller (50-36 percent), making her “one of the more popular Senators in the country.”

Once she’d announced her write-in campaign, it took just minutes for Murkowski to know where she stands with the GOP – abandoned and on her own.

“Senate Republicans informed Lisa Murkowski that we will respect the will of the voters in Alaska and support the Republican nominee, Joe Miller," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R) of Kentucky said in a statement. "Lisa has served her state and our party with distinction, but Republicans acknowledge the decision Alaskans made and join them in support of the Republican nominee.”

Murkowski immediately resigned from her position in the Senate GOP leadership.

For its part, the Tea Party Express is ready to roar back into Alaska on Miller’s behalf. They dismiss Murkowski’s reentering the race as a desperate ploy.

“If anything, it’s going to turn more voters out for [Miller] because it’s going to tick people off,” Tea Party Express chairman Amy Kremer told CNN. “She was fired by the people. The people were given a choice and they voted for somebody else.”

“It’s going to be tough,” Murkowski acknowledged at her rally in Anchorage Friday. “They’re going to come at us.”

But in a veiled reference to Sarah Palin, who left the governor’s office in mid-term to become a highly-paid author and speaker, Murkowski said, “This is one Republican woman who won’t quit on Alaska.”

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