WASHINGTON — She promised to make history, and Wednesday afternoon, it appeared that Sen. Lisa Murkowski had done just that.
Murkowski, who launched a high-profile write-in bid to represent Alaska in the U.S. Senate after losing the Republican primary to Joe Miller in August, appears to be the first write-in candidate to go to the Senate since Strom Thurmond's 1954 victory.
The Associated Press on Wednesday afternoon officially called the race for Murkowski, although since Nov. 2 it has been relatively clear that the write-in candidate received more votes than both Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams. The outcome became a foregone conclusion Wednesday as election officials neared completion of a hand count of more than 100,000 write-in ballots.
Murkowski was en route to Alaska from Washington on Wednesday afternoon and is expected to claim victory at a 5:50 p.m. local time press conference in Anchorage. However, the race has not yet been certified, and it's unclear how the Miller campaign will proceed. Miller, whose tea party-backed candidacy was supported by former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, had no immediate response.
Regardless, Murkowski's margin over Miller appears to make irrelevant his lawsuit asking the courts to toss out misspelled votes. There aren't enough misspelled votes identified for Miller to win, and even subtracting all the votes counted for Murkowski but challenged by the Miller campaign, Murkowski would still be ahead by several thousand votes.
Miller has said previously he would stop contesting the election if it became obvious he has no chance. Tuesday night, though, the Miller campaign called Alaska's computerized voting system "suspect," and spokesman Randy DeSoto said he wants the Division of Elections to recount the entire Senate race by hand.
If there is a recount, the Miller campaign would have to pay for it. The state only pays for recounts if a candidate is within 0.5 percent of winning.
Teams of ballot counters went through more than 100,000 write-in ballots over the past week in Juneau to see what voters wrote. Observers from both campaigns watched.
The Miller campaign challenged 8,153 of the votes the Division of Elections counted for Murkowski. Some of those appeared to be filled out perfectly. The challenges were most often of ballots that misspelled a letter or two in her last name.
Murkowski ended up with 92,715 votes that were unchallenged by the Miller campaign. That's still 2,247 votes more than the 90,468 Miller received.
Murkowski, a well-known incumbent with a lot of money running in a small state — and who succeeded her father when he became Alaska's governor — was positioned better than most obscure write-in candidates, but political operatives and academics will be studying her campaign for years. Murkowski distributed rubber bracelets with her name on it, T-shirts, even temporary tattoos.
She had $1 million left over from the Republican primary, where Miller beat her in one of the most shocking upsets in Alaska's political history. She also received a boost from Alaska Native Corporations, which spent more than $1.2 million on her behalf.
Her win over Miller also represents, on a small scale, the schism within the Republican Party as it struggles to absorb the insurgent tea party movement that helped flip the House of Representatives to the GOP.