ANCHORAGE — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski on Tuesday night conceded the Republican primary election to Joe Miller, the tea party backed challenger who maintained his Election Day lead after thousands of additional absentee and other ballots were counted through the day.
"We know that we have outstanding votes to count in the primary but based on where we are right now I don't see a scenario where the primary will turn out in my favor. And that is a reality that is before me at this time," Murkowski said in a news conference broadcast live over statewide television from her campaign headquarters in Anchorage.
Murkowski did not endorse Miller in her concession speech. She took no questions.
Miller said Murkowski called him early this evening to say she was conceding.
"I thanked her for the hard-fought contest and wished her the best and asked for unity," Miller said in a telephone interview from his hometown of Fairbanks.
Miller said he thinks Murkowski will end up supporting him in the general election. "I'm going to give her some time and we're going to talk more about it later," he said.
Miller said he's going to meet with close friends and family Tuesday night. "Then we'll probably head back to the office and do some more campaign work a little bit later tonight," Miller said on Tuesday.
Miller will now face Democrat Scott McAdams, the mayor of Sitka, in the November general election.
The race was bitter to the end. Miller in recent days has alleged that the Murkowski side was trying to skew the election by possibly tampering with votes. Murkowski called him paranoid.
Murkowski's concession came after a day of counting just over 17,000 absentee and questioned ballots. Nearly 12,000 of them were from Republican primary voters, who had the potential to change the Miller-Murkowski race. But when the day was done, Murkowski had only picked up 38 votes and Miller's lead was 1,630 votes. He had a total of 52,988 votes to 51,358 for Murkowski.
The Alaska Division of Elections plans to count what could be more than 8,600 remaining absentee and questioned votes Friday and next week. While the majority of them are expected to be Republican primary votes, Murkowski didn't want to wait to concede.
She gave her concession speech surrounded by her campaign volunteers. Many of them were in tears.
"I'm so proud of the campaign we conducted. It was honest, it was upright, it was energetic. It was what campaigning in Alaska should be. We stayed focused on the issues, we stayed on the high road," Murkowski said.
Murkowski's concession marks one of the biggest political upsets in Alaska history.
Miller, a 43-year-old Yale-educated lawyer, West Point graduate and Gulf War veteran, was a little known Fairbanks attorney before he was endorsed by former Gov. Sarah Palin and the Tea Party Express. Palin's husband, Todd, and Miller are friends. The California-based tea party group became interested in Miller after Palin endorsed him, then the group spent some $600,000 on the race.
After the concession, Palin posted a congratulatory message to Miller on Twitter: "Do you believe in miracles?! ... Thank you for your service, Sen. Murkowski. On to November!"
"We congratulate Joe Miller on winning the political shocker of the year. Joe Miller's campaign based on a constitutional conservative platform resonated with the state's Republican primary voters and should serve as a wake-up call to the political establishments of both parties," Tea Party Express Chair Amy Kremer said in a written statement. "We also thank and congratulate Gov. Sarah Palin who first called our attention to this race. She was right in her proclamation that Joe Miller was a first-rate candidate who offered a vision for the future of this country and how to return America to the right track."
Miller and the Tea Party Express advertised heavily right before the election, with ads attacking Murkowski as a "liberal" who too often sided with the Democrats in Congress. Murkowski argued to voters that her seniority and position in the Senate is good for Alaska. She's a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and the most senior Republican on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Miller ran the kind of campaign that's never before been successful for an Alaskan running for U.S. Senate. He called for slashing federal spending while running for office in a state where federal money plays a huge role in driving the economy.
Miller has argued that without far less federal spending the nation faces a "sovereign debt crisis," that Alaska would not escape. Miller has recently spoken about a transition period where the federal appropriations for Alaska continue while he attempts to get federal lands in state hands in order to develop them.
Murkowski was stunned after Miller ended last Tuesday's Election Day balloting with a 1,668 vote lead. Murkowski said the day after the election that "our (poll) numbers all throughout have not only been strong but really overwhelmingly strong," she said. "Clearly there was a shift, whether it was kind of the anti-incumbency feedback that you get in the Lower 48, I don't know yet."
Murkowski was a state legislator when she was appointed by her father, Frank Murkowski, in 2002 to the U.S. Senate seat he was giving up to become governor. Miller and the Tea Party Express called the Murkowskis a royal dynasty that had to go.
Both Murkowski and her father ended up losing in Republican primary elections. Frank Murkowski lost to Palin in the 2006 Republican primary for governor.
The Miller-Murkowski race was about more than Palin and the Tea Party. Murkowski has long been criticized by the right wing in Alaska, including for her pro-choice views. Miller has said a ballot initiative on last Tuesday's primary election ballot requiring teens to notify their parents before getting an abortion helped drive voters to the polls who supported him. Murkowski said she supported the initiative but wasn't active in the campaign for it like Miller.
Murkowski pushed a bill controversial in Southeast Alaska to give the Native corporation Sealaska lands in the Tongass National Forest. Miller said she wasn't giving people enough chance to be heard. Miller more aggressively targeted Murkowski for issues including her support for the Bush administration's Wall Street bailout, a vote Murkowski said she came to regret. Miller argued she didn't want to repeal the federal health care law. Murkowski said that was a lie.
Murkowski said she will return to Alaska after her term in the Senate is over.
Miller said he always expected to beat Murkowski and is looking ahead. "We're always working it and we'll continue to work it until the general (election) is done," he said.