Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whose loss in her state's Republican primary to the Tea Party-backed Joe Miller rattled the political world, will run a general election campaign as a Republican write-in candidate, she declared today.
As supporters at a late-afternoon rally in Anchorage, Alaska, chanted, "Run, Lisa, Run," Murkowski told them, "I get the message. I hear it loud and clear, and I announce today that I will be a write-in candidate in November for the United States Senate seat that I now hold."
The incumbent senator's run sets the stage for a three-way race between her, Miller, and the Democratic candidate, Scott McAdams, mayor of Sitka, Alaska.
Unlike Sen. Joe Lieberman, I-Conn., who successfully switched from a Democrat to Independent, Murkowski will not be running as an independent and is not changing her party. Also, her name won't actually be on the ballot. Voters would have to write it in.
Political observers have called Murkowski's chances slim: No statewide candidate taking the write-in route ever has been successful in Alaska.
Murkowski acknowledged the skeptics, but insisted, "We can do it."
"Alaskans can't fill in an oval and spell M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I?" she asked.
As she responded to critics of her write-in chances, she also took a not-so-veiled swipe at a political rival, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who left office before her term was up.
"They tell me that this can't be done, that this is a futile effort," she said. "Well, maybe this is one time that they have met one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska."
Murkowski conceded to newcomer Miller, who had Palin's backing, on Sept. 1 after a tough primary battle in which she outspent him by more than $2.5 million.
Before her announcement Friday, the National Republican Senatorial Committee discouraged Murkowski from following the write-in path, saying it was "united behind Joe Miller's nomination."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., underscored that sentiment after Murkowski declared her write-in candidacy.
"Senate Republicans informed Lisa Murkowski that we will respect the will of the voters in Alaska and support the Republican nominee, Joe Miller," he said in a statement. "I informed her that by choosing to run a campaign against the Republican nominee, she no longer has my support for serving in any leadership roles, and I have accepted her letter of resignation from Senate leadership. 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, Joe Miller -- the next senator for Alaska."
As Murkowski's intentions became evident, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee blasted her decision as "the latest example of the Republican Party cannibalizing itself.
"From the tip of Florida, to the beaches in Delaware, all the way to the islands off Alaska, the Republican Party heads into November with deep and serious divisions," DSCC press secretary Deirdre Murphy said in a prepared statement. "Alaska voters now have three options in November: a Washington insider who supports the failed economic policies of the past, an extremist who wants to end Social Security and Medicare, and a small-town mayor who would put Alaskan families first."
Murkowski said she didn't easily arrive at her decision to reverse her earlier pledge not to mount a write-in campaign, but was swayed by what she claimed were pleas from supporters, her Democratic opponent's inexperience and the bitter taste left by what she called Miller's "last-minute mudslinging" and "outright lies."
"As of last night, I was still wrestling with this," she said. "I looked into my heart and I said, 'Where is my heart?' And my heart is Alaska. I cannot leave you. I cannot stop what we have started, what Ted [the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska] and so many others have built and we are advancing."
Murkowski made the announcement after inviting members of the media to photograph the event without officially revealing its nature.
However, the Anchorage Daily News reported that Murkowski campaign staff member Bonnie Jack sent out an e-mail asking people to "join us at the Kick-off of Senator Lisa's campaign" and "write in her name in and fill in the oval" on Election Day.
"We plan to make history!" the invitation read, according to the newspaper.
The Anchorage Daily News also cited a Facebook post from Murkowski's cousin, Mary Gore: "My cousin will announce at 5:00 today that she will run as a write-in candidate for US Senate. GO LISA GO! ... Come be a part of history AND learn how to spell her last name correctly for the ballot!"
Republican insiders blamed Murkowski's loss on her not taking Miller's threat seriously enough. One Republican strategist said that Murkowski's campaign was advised 10 weeks ago to use her huge monetary funds to attack Miller, but did not heed the advice, to her peril.
Instead, she targeted President Obama and touted her work in helping Alaskans. It was only on Aug. 23 -- a day before the elections -- that she finally went up with a negative radio ad against Miller. At that point, it was too late.
"I will be the first one to admit to you that we made some mistakes," she told her supporters Friday. "When he swung, I didn't swing back."
Her write-in campaign will be different, she insisted.
"The gloves are off," she said. "I'm fighting for Alaska. We're in."
Miller, once a virtual unknown, was propelled by an aggressive campaign attacking Murkowski's voting record in Washington and high-profile endorsements from former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin and the California-based Tea Party Express.
Murkowski also took a beating for being too soft on abortion, a hot-button issue among conservatives. Miller's campaign accused the incumbent senator of not being pro-life. But Murkowski didn't fight back until very late or make any of the issues a focal point of her campaign, giving her opponents free rein on what they could say.
Perhaps another political shift that Murkowski didn't see coming was the power of Palin's endorsement and the Tea Party's influence, one that, many say, helped change the course of the race.
Unlike some of her "mama grizzlies," Palin remained behind the scenes in Miller's campaign. She didn't appear in any TV ads or at rallies for him, and only recorded one robocall toward the end.
But it was Palin, Republican insiders said, who helped pull the purse strings. Her political action committee gave $5,000 to Miller's campaign and helped with getting the Tea Party Express to bankroll much of it.
It's unusual for national money to pour into Alaska for midterm elections except for an incumbent. But Palin changed that game.
Palin's quiet emergence in the Senate race was a testament to the long-standing feud between the two families. Palin was one of a handful of candidates Murkowski's father, Frank, had picked to replace him in the U.S. Senate when he became governor in 2002. In the end, however, he ended up choosing his daughter, Lisa, despite allegations of nepotism.
Palin beat Frank Murkowski in the 2006 gubernatorial race as his ratings tanked.
The cold relationship between Murkowski and Palin is widely documented. Murkowski took a stab at Palin for stepping down as governor, and assailed the former veep candidate for being out "for her own self-interest" and not "Alaska's interest."
Palin, meanwhile, targeted the family dynasty in her robocall for Miller.