Pushing back against the nationwide success of the tea party movement, Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski announced Friday that she'd pursue an unprecedented write-in bid to hold on to her Senate seat after losing the August Republican primary.
The decision is a historic gamble for Murkowski. With her name not on the ballot and without the support of the Republican establishment, which now backs attorney Joe Miller, the odds aren't in her favor. No one has been elected to the U.S. Senate as a write-in candidate since Strom Thurmond in 1954.
"Today, my friends, my campaign for Alaska's future begins," Murkowski said, joined by several hundred supporters in Anchorage waving red-and-blue "Lisa for Senate" signs and chanting "Run, Lisa, Run!" "We're in this together."
Murkowski has $1 million left in campaign funds, but she's likely to face another round of potent opposition from the tea party movement, which plowed an estimated $600,000 into Miller's primary campaign.
Murkowski is "going to get clobbered," said Sal Russo, the California political consultant behind the Tea Party Express, adding that the group is prepared to return to Alaska.
Murkowski, who's been in the Senate since 2002, was a rising star in the Senate GOP leadership until Miller beat her in the August primary by a margin of fewer than 2,000 votes. Murkowski, in conceding the race, initially said she planned to move home to Alaska.
However, she subsequently said that many Alaskans were urging her to remain in the race and that the Republican primary was "hijacked" by the tea party.
Little known candidates embraced by the tea party movement have toppled establishment favorites in several Republican races this year, including this week's upset defeat in Delaware's Senate primary of moderate Rep. Michael Castle by conservative commentator Christine O'Donnell. O'Donnell and Miller both had the backing of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who along with South Carolina Sen. Jim DeMint, have helped propel insurgent conservatives to victory nationwide.
Palin, speaking to reporters at a Republican dinner in Iowa, called Murkowski's plan "a futile effort on her part."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky. said he'd accepted Murkowski's resignation from the GOP Senate leadership. Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, the Senate GOP campaign chief, said he's "deeply disappointed" with her write-in bid, and Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele said there's no question that the party backs Miller.
"Alaskans selected Joe Miller as the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate and he has the full support of the Republican National Committee," Steele said. "I am confident that he will win in November and will work to restore conservative, principled and fiscally responsible leadership in Washington."
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign committee, already delighted at its improved prospects in Delaware, said Murkowski's decision represents the Republican Party "cannibalizing itself."
Miller and the Democrats' candidate, Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, enjoy a distinct advantage: Unlike Murkowski, their names will be on the ballot.
Murkowski said she knows she faces a massive undertaking to convince voters to write in her name. She acknowledged she made mistakes in her campaign, chiefly among them her failure to hit back at Miller when the Tea Party Express attacked her.
Murkowski frequently invoked former Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens, who spent 40 years in the Senate and died last month in a plane crash. Taking the stage Friday evening, Murkowski said she wished Stevens could have attended the rally.
"This is Alaska, where we come together, and we embrace one another for who we are, not because we may share the same political label, but because of who we are and what we contribute to our state," she said. "This is what makes Alaska great, not our political labels."
(Cockerham reported from Anchorage and Bolstad reported from Washington.)