SEATTLE – Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski claimed victory Wednesday night over defiant challenger Joe Miller after building a decisive lead in near-final vote tallies.
The Republican incumbent persuaded more than 100,000 Alaskans to write in her name – a highly unusual feat in a statewide race. If her victory holds up through a possible recount and court challenge, she would become the first senator elected by write-in since 1954.
“I think we can say our miracle is here,” she told about 50 cheering supporters in Anchorage as the state was completing its count of the last 700 absentee ballots. “Against all odds, we as Alaskans together made history. You made history.”
Strom Thurmond was the last senator to win a write-in campaign.
Murkowski’s apparent victory signals an important if symbolic loss for Alaska’s former governor, Sarah Palin, who backed Miller and had appeared at a high-profile rally for him shortly before the election. The Fairbanks attorney waged an aggressive challenge financed in part by the Tea Party Express.
Miller has not conceded. In view of the closeness of the race, he said, he will consider requesting a hand recount and will not decide until at least Friday.
“After all the absentee ballots are in and we’ve further reviewed the procedures and the results, we may ask for a recount,” he said in a statement. “Less than 1 percent of the vote now separates my and Lisa Murkowski’s total. If there is a recount and a consistent standard is applied to all the ballots, who knows what the difference would be.”
But the Alaska Republican Party, which has supported Miller since his unexpected primary victory, on Wednesday urged him to recognize the vote tallies and end his campaign “in a dignified manner.”
“At this point we are comfortable calling this race. Lisa has won,” party Chairman Randy Ruedrich said in a statement. “This was a free and fair election.”
By early Wednesday, the Murkowski campaign had concluded that Miller could not win. Even if the more than 8,100 write-in ballots he has challenged are thrown out – and that’s unlikely, since most include minor misspellings of Murkowski’s name and some are spelled perfectly – the incumbent still would be ahead. By midday, she had an edge of more than 2,200 votes over and above the challenged ballots.
“We are not going to wait for Joe Miller to concede. If the votes are over, the votes are over. And we’ve actually exceeded Joe’s very narrow definition of the law” on which votes should be counted, said Murkowski’s campaign spokesman, John Tracy.
Miller campaign officials say they had found signs of irregularities in some aspects of the count, prompting them to try to conduct a thorough examination of selected precinct records turned over to the campaign this week by the state Division of Elections.