Handicapper Headache: What About Alaska?

by Stuart Rothenberg September 22, 2010 · 10:05 AM EDT

Can Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was denied renomination by Alaska Republicans, win as a write-in candidate in November? Obviously, it’s a long shot, as is any write-in campaign, but is it impossible?

I start off skeptical, but I’m not sure.

For anyone who doesn’t know about Alaska politics, let’s just say that at one time it was mind-bogglingly weird. Partisan attachment in the state was remarkably weak, with voters even electing the Alaska Independence Party nominee, former Republican Gov. Walter Hickel, as governor in 1990.

On some levels, Alaska is your archetypically Republican state. It hasn’t voted for a Democrat for president since 1964, hasn’t sent a Democrat to the House since 1972 and, until Mark Begich was elected narrowly in 2008, hadn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since 1974.

Gov. Sean Parnell (R), who was elected lieutenant governor but ascended to the state’s top job when Sarah Palin (R)resigned, is a clear favorite to win in November.

But in other ways, Alaska can still surprise you.

Republicans lost five straight gubernatorial elections from 1982 through 1998, in part because of divisions within the GOP. And while Republicans hold a narrow advantage in the state House, the state Senate is run by a coalition of 10 Democrats and six Republicans.

Joe Miller, the tea party-backed conservative who won the GOP Senate nomination, drew 51 percent of the vote to Murkowski’s 49 percent, a 2,006-vote majority in the closed primary.

But Murkowski didn’t run the aggressive kind of campaign that Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) did, for example, so it’s hard to know how many Murkowski supporters didn’t bother to turn out because they figured that she would coast to victory.

There are obviously logistical challenges to running as a write-in, but spelling the Senator’s name isn’t one of them. Election officials have already indicated they will count votes for her if voters’ intentions are clear.

GOP strategists agree that Murkowski has an opening, but they aren’t sure how much.

Some think she is tilting at windmills. One operative who knows the state’s politics well thinks that “while she’ll do better than the usual write-in, she really won’t be competitive in any way.”

“Polling will probably overstate her strength,” the same observer said. “It’s easier to tell a pollster that you are going to write her in than it is actually to write her in.”

Alaska Republicans have always been split between moderates and social conservatives, and many Alaska voters see their representatives’ role at least in part as “bringing back the bacon,” a job that the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R) and Rep. Don Young (R) have taken seriously and for which they were rewarded re-election after re-election.

Private polling that tested Murkowski as a Libertarian nominee against Miller and Democrat Scott McAdams showed the Senator in a tight contest against the Republican nominee. But Murkowski isn’t the Libertarian nominee; she’s a write-in, and that’s a world of difference.

For national Republicans, dealing with Murkowski as a write-in is both easy and hard.

Clearly, the Senate GOP leadership and the National Republican Senatorial Committee must formally support Miller, giving him both the maximum direct contribution ($42,000) and the maximum in coordinated funds ($180,000). Any waffling of support would drive Tea Party activists crazy, creating a national controversy that the NRSC and the Republican Party don’t need.

But unless McAdams appears to be a threat — and you can bet that national Democratic strategists are assessing whether their nominee has a chance in a three-way race — it’s impossible to imagine the NRSC spending money on an independent expenditure effort to help Miller stave off Murkowski, who would surely conference with Republicans if she were elected as a write-in.

A Republican IE against Murkowski would make no sense, especially when those dollars could be used elsewhere to help Republicans defeat Democrats.

Democrats aren’t ready to jump into an Alaska Senate race that still looks uphill, even with two Republicans in the race and with Murkowski and Miller likely to attack each other viciously without any regard for the Democratic nominee.

But that doesn’t mean they aren’t examining their options. As one Democrat joked, “It’s a cheap date.”

What’s the easiest scenario to imagine? With McAdams widely regarded as a nonentity, Murkowski could become the de facto Democratic candidate in the contest. Even if that happens, it’s easiest to see Miller winning the Senate seat in November.

But until we see a number of reliable polls and how Murkowski proceeds with her campaign, which is likely to be well-funded, there is no reason to rush to judgment.

Unfortunately, polling in the state doesn’t have a great history. All six of the polls conducted after September in the 2008 Alaska Congressional race (five public surveys and a private one that was never released) showed Democrat Ethan Berkowitz beating Young by margins of 5 points to 9 points. In fact, Young won the race by about 5 points.