Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski conceded the state’s Republican primary to her “tea party"-backed rival Tuesday night, an outcome that illustrated voters’ anger with the Washington establishment and the power of former Gov. Sarah Palin in her home state.
Murkowski, who had trailed Joe Miller by fewer than 1,700 votes on election night, had made gains as election officials began counting thousands of absentee and provisional ballots. At one point on Tuesday, the margin narrowed to about 1,200. But that trend did not continue.
FOR THE RECORD:
Alaska Senate race: An article in the Sept. 1 LATExtra section about Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s concession of defeat in Alaska’s Republican primary said GOP Senate candidate Rand Paul was from Kansas. He is from Kentucky. —
“I don’t see a scenario where the primary will turn in my favor,” Murkowski said as she conceded at her campaign headquarters in Anchorage. “I’m proud of the campaign. It was honest and upright.”
She becomes the third senator this year whose reelection bid did not survive the primary. Pennsylvania Democrats rejected Sen. Arlen Specter after he switched parties, and Utah Sen. Robert F. Bennett failed to qualify for the ballot at the state Republican convention.
Miller, a Fairbanks attorney and decorated Gulf War veteran making his first try for statewide office, had trailed Murkowski in fundraising and in opinion polls throughout the campaign.
But he had Palin, who bucked state party leaders to endorse him; and the Tea Party Express, the political action committee that spent $600,000 on ads assailing Murkowski as insufficiently conservative and promoting Palin’s endorsement. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also backed him. Both Huckabee, who was unsuccessful in his bid to be the GOP presidential nominee in 2008; and Palin, the party’s vice presidential nominee that year; are expected to seek the 2012 Republican presidential nomination.
Miller, 43, thanked Palin, Huckabee, the tea party movement and others.
“Now is the time for all Alaskans to come together and reach out with our core message of taking power from the federal government and bringing it back home to the people,” he said. “If we continue to allow the federal government to live beyond its means, we will all soon have to live below ours.”
He also thanked Murkowski for “honorably conceding the race.”
Before Tuesday’s count of absentee and provisional ballots began, she trailed Miller by 1,668 votes. At the end of the day, the gap had narrowed to 1,630 — a gain of only 38 votes for Murkowski. The new tally reflected 11,960 additional votes in the primary.
Miller’s victory also marked the ascendant power of the tea party movement — the first time one of its candidates has defeated a senator in a primary. Its previous victories include Sharron Angle in Nevada, who is seeking Sen. Harry Reid’s seat, and Rand Paul in Kansas, who is running for an open Senate seat.
The Alaska election process had been acrimonious. Miller had accused both Murkowski and the National Republican Senatorial Committee of improperly “meddling” in the counting process, after the senator requested legal advice from the Washington-based committee.
The state’s lieutenant governor had denied a request by Miller’s campaign to assign state troopers to protect uncounted ballots. Miller’s campaign said a Murkowski ballot watcher had improperly accessed an Elections Division computer.
Murkowski had denied wrongdoing. “I have complete faith in our system, and I am astounded that Mr. Miller continues to make blatantly false accusations that there is something nefarious happening,” she said in a statement Monday.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee congratulated Miller on Tuesday night.
“After a hard-fought primary contest, I offer my sincere congratulations to Joe Miller and offer him my strong support,” the chairman, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said in a statement. “The NRSC is committed to doing everything that we can in order to ensure Joe Miller’s victory this November, and I have no doubt that he will be elected as the next U.S. senator from Alaska.”
The Tea Party Express exulted in the outcome.
“We here at the Tea Party Express couldn’t be more excited,” Amy Kremer, chairman of the group, said in a statement.
“We congratulate Joe Miller on winning the political shocker of the year.” His victory, Kremer said, “should serve as a wake-up call to the political establishments of both parties.”
In November, Miller will face Democrat Scott McAdams, the Sitka mayor. A Public Policy Polling survey released Sunday showed him trailing Miller, 47% to 39%, with 14% undecided.
Murkowski, who was appointed to the Senate seat by her father in 2002 and elected to a full term in 2004, had been widely expected to win renomination last week. Bad blood between her and Palin stretches back at least to 2006, when Palin defeated Murkowski’s father, Frank, in the Republican GOP gubernatorial primary.
Some observers had speculated that if Murkowski lost the Republican nomination she might join the Libertarian Party ticket. But on Monday, the party voted unanimously not to offer her its nomination.