ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Before this year’s Republican primary in August, U.S. Senate candidate Joe Miller was an unknown, and Sen. Lisa Murkowski was expected to cruise to victory. But in the wake of Miller’s stunning upset, Murkowski is fighting for a political comeback.
“Personally, my biggest success is my family; my husband and I have two beautiful, strong, healthy boys,” Murkowski said. “What more could you ask for in life?”
The Murkowski family is to Alaska what the Kennedys are to Massachusetts. On Lisa Murkowski's mother's side, the family history in Alaska goes back almost 100 years.
In 1932, President Hoover appointed her grandfather, Lester Gore, as a federal territorial judge. Lisa Murkowski's mother, Nancy, was just a toddler when her family moved to Nome.
Murkowski made history herself in 2002 when her father, then-Gov. Frank Murkowski, appointed her to fill his Senate seat after he was elected governor.
In 2004, Murkowski beat Democrat Tony Knowles and was elected to the seat in her own right. Until this year’s Senate race, it appeared people had gotten used to the idea.
But this year's campaign stirred up old feelings of resentment, especially when Murkowski lost the Republican primary to Miller and decided to run a write-in campaign.
“It is something that I will live with -- that's just the political reality of it,” Murkowski said. “But perhaps that's just something that will never go away.”
The nepotism issue appears to have faded in rural Alaska, where it resonated strongly in 2004 with Alaska Native voters who overwhelmingly supported Knowles. But feelings toward Murkowski have changed after eight years on the job, as seen in her endorsement by the Alaska Federation of Natives convention in Fairbanks earlier this month.
“My knees were shaking; I have never been in a place or a situation where I have been so humbled to my core,” Murkowski said.
Joe Miller expressed anger at AFN when the convention cancelled its U.S. Senate debate, accusing AFN leaders of not wanting Alaska Natives to hear his vision for shareholders.
“You know, we see a lot of shiny buildings sprouting up in Anchorage, but where do we see the benefit to rural Alaskans?” Miller asked last week.
“I'll tell you what those big buildings in Anchorage are: they are an expression of pride in Alaska,” said Byron Mallott, Murkowski’s campaign co-chair, as he spoke at AFN. “They are an expression of confidence in Alaska. They are an expression of who we are as Native people.”
Miller says AFN endorsed Murkowski because she's in the pocket of Native corporations.
“I think that Mr. Miller has taken some very complex issues and tried to assign some simplistic solutions,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski says Native corporations need to be held accountable, and that reforms may be needed to keep them strong for the good of the state's economy.
“I think for those that have been born here, those of us who have spent decades here in Alaska, we understand what (late Sen.) Ted Stevens built,” Murkowski said. “Ted Stevens was one who truly exemplified giving people a hand up -- not a handout, but a hand up.”
Murkowski says Miller is a threat to that legacy.
“He has said the individual that he respects the most in the United States Senate currently is (South Carolina’s) Jim DeMint -- if he models himself after Jim DeMint, that's a disaster for Alaska,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski says DeMint is on the far end of the conservative spectrum, and has repeatedly voted against Alaska's interests. But Murkowski's own voting record has been under attack by Democrat Scott McAdams as too conservative.
“Based on the Congressional Record, you have voted no on every single appropriations bill over the last year,” McAdams told Murkowski at an Oct. 17 candidates forum.
Murkowski implied that her stance might change if voters return her to Washington, D.C.
“There's nothing more grassroots than a write-in campaign. it does change the dynamic of how you are viewed,” Murkowski said. “It is really very satisfying that when I return to Washington, D.C., my allegiance is first and foremost to Alaska, not to any political party.”
She also says she doesn’t regret her decision to run as a write-in candidate.
“In looking at where we are now and what we are learning about Joe Miller on a daily basis, had I not decided to put my name forward as a write-in candidate, I just don't know how I would have been able to sleep at night,” Murkowski said.
Murkowski says she will remain a Republican, but if she wins her write-in campaign she'll have more independence and will be able to find more middle ground.
“That's what leadership is about: being able to sit down with people that you disagree with and take the best ideas, pull them together and make things work,” Murkowski said.
But the question remains: will things work at the ballot box, where Alaska voters will be asked to do something that has only once been accomplished in Senate history?
The political roller-coaster isn't new to Murkowski. In 2002, she held on to her state House seat by less than 60 votes. Two years later, she was propelled into national office -- and then in this year's Republican primary, a stunning defeat. It will be up to voters to decide whether she rises to power again Tuesday.
South Carolina’s late Sen. Strom Thurmond was the only U.S. senator to win a general election as a write-in candidate, in 1954.
Contact Rhonda McBride at firstname.lastname@example.org