Alaska is the sort of state that should be easy for the Republicans to win. Yet, for the second election in a row, internal drama in the Republican party threatens its hold on a Senate seat.
The Alaskan seat up for election in 2010 is currently held by Lisa Murkowski. She has held her Senate seat since 2002 — when dad Frank Murkowski stood down to be elected Governor of Alaska after almost 22 years as a senator. Upon taking office as Governor, he appointed his daughter to his Senate vacancy.
The outcry following the younger Murkowski’s appointment resulted in Alaskan voters passing an initiative in 2004 requiring special elections for any future Senate vacancies. Still, Murkowski managed to win re-election in 2004 by a slim 3% margin over former Governor Tony Knowles.
Things started to go downhill for the Murkowski family in 2006, when the elder Murkowski was pushed to third place in the Republican gubernatorial primary, polling only 19% compared to 51% for former Wasilla mayor Sarah Palin.
In 2008, Republican Senator Ted Stevens was running for re-election after 40 years in the Senate. In July 2008, he was indicted on a number of charges related to gifts and renovations to his home worth over $250,000. Stevens had won re-election in 2002 with 78% of the vote, but in 2008 was locked in a close race with Anchorage mayor Mark Begich. He was convicted by a federal jury only eight days before the 2008 general election, and went on to lose the race by a slim margin.
In 2010, the younger Murkowski was challenged in the Republican primary by former magistrate Scott Miller. Miller received the support of former Governor Sarah Palin, incumbent Governor Sean Parnell, and numerous national figures such as John McCain and Mike Huckabee. Miller was endorsed by national conservative groups and by a number of ‘tea party’ branches. Murkowski has developed a reputation as a more moderate Republican, supporting the right to abortion and has occasionally split with her party to vote for Democratic measures.
In the Republican primary, Miller defeated Murkowski by a slim margin, managing 50.91% in a two-candidate race. When it became clear that Murkowski had been defeated, she made overtures to the minor Libertarian party, who refused to endorse Murkowski as their candidate. In September 2010, she announced she would run as a write-in candidate.
Murkowski’s independent bid has thrown an element of chaos into the Alaskan race. As a write-in candidate, Murkowski’s name won’t be printed on the ballot paper, but voters will have the option to vote for her by writing in her name. This then raises the question of polling accuracy and how badly misspelled her name has to be for a vote to not be counted. What about ‘Lisa Merkosky’ or even just ‘Lisa M’?
The splitting of the Republican vote between the incumbent senator and the endorsed candidate also turns this contest from a foregone conclusion to a three-horse race, with neither Republican candidate so far ahead of the Democrat, Scott McAdams. Three polls taken in October all show Miller and Murkowski neck-and-neck, with McAdams trailing by less than 10 points.
Alaska is turning into a close contest between Palin ally Miller and the more moderate Murkowski, which could turn on how easy it is to vote for each candidate. Miller and McAdams voters will be able to simply fill in the box for their candidate, while Murkowski voters will need to remember her name and know how to vote for her. If that proves too difficult it may scutter her campaign.