Senate Race in Alaska Is Bitter and Unpredictable

October 26, 2010 - 10:12 AM

Juneau, Alaska (AP) - For Alaskan voters, this year's Senate election is venturing into unexplored territory.

The three-way contest features a rematch of the bitter Republican primary, a rising Democrat who is moving from spoiler to contender, and even a voice from the grave. With millions of dollars flowing into the state to help fuel nonstop TV and radio ads, the scope of outside interest in the election is virtually unprecedented.

Don't count on a quick resolution to the drama on Election Night. If the race turns out to be as tight as polling suggests, write-in and absentee ballots could come into play. That could put off a final tally -- and the determination of the winner -- for weeks.

Republican nominee Joe Miller is courting the conservative vote and seeking to draw Republican support away from Sen. Lisa Murkowski, whom he defeated in the primary. Democrat Scott McAdams is competing for on-the-fence Democrats and moderate independents. Campaigns say many voters are still undecided.

"I'm hopeful what we see thrown out at the end in desperation doesn't disillusion the voter out there," said Murkowski, who is running as a write-in candidate. "But we shall see what the next week holds."

If these last days are a repeat of what was seen before the primary, she added, "It's bound to be ugly."

Miller, 43, has been working to regain focus and overcome a series of missteps. The fiscal conservative has acknowledged that he or members of his family received Medicaid, unemployment and farm subsidies in the past -- government largesse he's criticized as a candidate -- and his security detail was criticized for handcuffing and detaining a journalist after a town hall meeting.

Miller fought release of his personnel file from his time as a government attorney with the Fairbanks North Star Borough, admitting only that he had violated office policy and refusing to provide details. After a judge ordered the release of the personnel records, Miller said during a debate Sunday night that he had been disciplined for participating in a private poll during his lunch hour. He called it a mistake he's learned from.

Earlier in the campaign, Miller said he'd be transparent and honest with the public. But shortly before the judge's ruling, Miller, an attorney who's never held elected office, declared his personal life off limits. He accused his opponents of trying to divert voters' attention to "petty" issues from his past and said he intends to spend the final days of the race talking about issues that really matter.

He's focused almost exclusively on Murkowski, whom he's branded as part of the problem in an out-of-control Washington. Murkowski, criticized after her primary loss for not responding to Miller's claims, hasn't made the same mistake this time, answering each charge and pouncing on his every misstep.

The race turned personal a long time ago. In the debate Sunday night, Murkowski accused Miller of telling lies about her record and misusing government computers while a borough attorney. She asked him whether he believed his instructors and classmates at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point would say he has lived up to the code of honor.

That drew former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, a Murkowski foe and Miller supporter, back into the race. On Facebook on Monday, Palin wrote, "I find it astonishing that a sitting U.S. senator from Alaska would challenge the honor of a decorated combat veteran."

Murkowski, 53, is trying to do what no Senate candidate has done since 1954: win as a write-in candidate. Since re-entering the race last month, she has balanced her Miller attack ads with ones educating voters on the write-in process and trying to sell herself as a moderate candidate.

McAdams, a former local school board member and Sitka mayor, has been cast by Murkowski as too inexperienced and by Miller as being of the same "liberal" ilk as Murkowski. Murkowski's gone so far as to suggest a vote for McAdams is akin to a vote for Miller.

But McAdams has proven to be a tireless campaigner, filling town hall meetings, working the phones with potential donors and proving to many Democrats -- lukewarm about Murkowski but frightened by what a Miller win would mean -- that he's not a token candidate.

McAdams, 40, has called Murkowski's run a lost cause and himself a "safe" vote, since his name is on the ballot and immune to the kinds of challenges a write-in will likely incur.

Each of the candidates has raised at least $1 million -- parlaying that into near-constant ads on TV and radio -- and each has gotten help from outside sources, too.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has pledged at least $212,000 to help Miller, and Palin has given him $10,000. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee has promised $42,000 to McAdams. And Alaskans Standing Together, a so-called "super PAC" formed by Alaska Native corporations, has spent more than $1.2 million in the last month for Murkowski.

Murkowski has gotten help, too, from the late Sen. Ted Stevens, beloved in this state for bringing home billions of dollars in federal aid during his 40 years in the Senate. Ads he filmed 10 days before his death in a plane crash are now running with the blessing of his family.

The Senate race is the main event of the election expected to draw at least 51 percent of eligible voters to the polls, if past trends for general elections hold. But this election lacks any ballot initiatives that could draw social conservatives to the polls. The Republican primary, which Miller won by 2,006 votes, also included an abortion notification measure.

"It's all about timing," said longtime Alaska pollster Jean Craciun, who sees movement away from Miller and toward McAdams and Murkowski. "The question is, on Election Day, where will that movement be?"

Another Alaska pollster, Dave Dittman, sees Miller holding fairly steady.

Craciun believes the winner will need at least 100,000 votes, and will have to pull from independents -- Alaska's largest bloc of registered voters. Both McAdams and Murkowski are focusing extra attention on these voters.

State election officials say they won't even count names on write-in ballots unless they make up the most votes in the race or the difference in their number and the highest voter getter is less than half a percent. Absentee ballots will be accepted up to 15 days after Election Day, so if the state does count the write-in ballots, it probably won't start until Nov. 18.