Newly elected senators have begun charting out their future strategies, but the contested Alaska Senate race remains in limbo as candidates prepare for the beginning of what could be complicated legal challenges.
Write-in candidates, of which incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski is one, received 41 percent of the vote last Tuesday, with Republican candidate Joe Miller behind at 34 percent. Democrat Scott McAdams had 23.6 percent of the vote and conceded last week.
If a name is misspelled or written incorrectly, it may still be counted. The elections division will assess each ballot on a case-by-case basis, and elections division Director Gail Fenumiai cited a provision in the charter that says as long as the name on the write-in ballot represents voter intent, it can be counted.
But Miller's campaign has already expressed a number of concerns about ballot counts, including the location and timing.
Miller's campaign also challenged the decision that voter intent is ample reasoning to count a ballot that does not have the candidate's correct spelling.
"Our only goal is a fair and accurate counting of the ballots," Miller's spokesman Randy DeSoto said in a statement. "Alaskans deserve to have a process they can be confident in without room for subjective interpretation."
Murkowski herself is preparing for an outcome that is likely to be embroiled in legal battles.
The incumbent senator, who pulled out all the stops days before the election, said Friday that her campaign had established the Alaska Protection Legal Fund to help pay for legal costs, and has "assembled a top-notch legal team to defend every Alaskan vote in this process."
Miller's response: Bring it on.
"Frankly, I think we're going to pull ahead," the GOP candidate told NBC Friday, adding that the race is far from over.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee came to the Tea Party candidate's rescue last week. Chairman Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, warned in an e-mail that both sides are "beginning to lawyer up and prepare for any possible legal fights," and asked Republicans to donate to Miller's campaign.
While the write-in candidates have a more than 13,400 vote-count lead over Miller, it remains to be seen whether Murkowski really can retain her seat.
If she wins, Murkowski will be the first write-in candidate in Alaska to have waged a successful campaign and only the second in the United States. No Alaskan candidate for statewide office has won more than 27 percent in a write-in campaign, according to an analysis by Smart Politics blog.
Nationally, only one U.S. Senator in history has been elected via a write-in campaign; Strom Thurmond in South Carolina's 1954 Senate race.
Alaska Elections Division to Begin Counting Write-ins This Week
There are more than 100 write-in candidates on the ballot, spearheaded by conservative bloggers to derail Murkowski's bid. "Operation Alaska Chaos," backed by supporters of Sarah Palin, encouraged lesser-known candidates to also wage write-in candidacies to confuse voters on election day.
If the vote difference is 20 or fewer, or less than half a percentage point of the total number of votes cast for the two candidates in the contested office, the elections division will do an automatic recount.
If the margin is any wider, the candidate requesting a recount has to pay $15,000.
Murkowski, who has been in office for eight years, enjoys the advantage of being a household name. Her father was himself senator and then governor, to be defeated later by Palin. But she is also facing the same anti-Washington sentiment that ousted incumbents across the country Tuesday.
The incumbent has had a long history of tensions with Palin, who threw her force and influence behind Miller, a virtual unknown until he started edging out Murkowski.
Miller, who narrowly defeated Murkowski in the primary, rode to victory on the back of Tea Party and Palin's support. But his standing plummeted amid scandals about his previous job at the Fairbanks Borough and whether he used county equipment to take part in ousting a Republican leader from his post.
Murkowski, on the other hand, gained increasing recognition as she touted the late Sen. Ted Stevens' endorsement of her days before his death.
It's not a surprise that Miller's popularity was short-lived, given his stances on federal benefits, including questioning whether federal health care benefits are constitutional, some analysts say. Miller and his wife themselves received Medicaid.
"Really, it was just the dynamics of the race," Alaska pollster Ivan Moore said of Murkowski's lead. "The closed Republican primary is the kind of exercise that will always produce candidates who are likely to be unpalatable to the broader population."
While the election Tuesday was clearly a referendum on Washington, to many incumbents' detriment, several sitting senators fared well, in what could be an uplifting sign for Murkowski.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid prevailed in a tight race against another high-profile Tea Party candidate, Sharron Angle, to the dismay of many conservatives who had hoped to unseat the most powerful man in the Senate.