World and Nation

Dark horse emerges in Alaska race for Senate: the incumbent

JUNEAU, Alaska — The night Lisa Murkowski announced she would mount a write-in campaign to retain her Senate seat, she acknowledged to a crowd of supporters that her odds were slim. Then she prompted a defiant roar: Invoking Native Alaskan culture, she told the crowd that the ancient Aleutian language contained no word for “impossible.”

It was a deft play to the state’s strong sense of identity and a direct appeal to native communities, whose support could prove crucial. It was also inaccurate. The word in Aleut is haangina-lix.

“It’s very clear that you can say ‘impossible,”’ said Gary Holton, director of the Alaska Native Language Archive.

The facts line up starkly against Murkowski: The only person ever elected to the U.S. Senate as a write-in candidate was Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, in 1954. No one in Alaska has ever been elected statewide as a write-in. Joe Miller, the Tea Party star who narrowly defeated Murkowski in the Republican primary, now has the support of the Washington Republican establishment and is raising money quickly.

So why do plenty of people here, from analysts to many rank-and-file Republicans, think that Murkowski, 53, who first came to office through the easiest route imaginable (her father, then the governor, appointed her in 2002), could well pull off the impossible?

Because in a matter of weeks, she has morphed from establishment incumbent to renegade underdog. For many, it could be an ego-crushing transition, from sitting senator to plaintive write-in, but Murkowski is using it to her advantage, painting herself as the maverick in this race.

It was Sarah Palin who turned the state on its head in 2006 when she defeated Murkowski’s father, the incumbent, in a landslide in the Republican primary for governor. And of course there is Miller, a largely unknown lawyer who won last month’s primary by portraying Murkowski as a symbol of broken Washington and himself as the rebel.

Now Murkowski, already armed with a substantial campaign account and a well-known name (if not one that is easy to spell), has her own dark horse story.

“I failed as a candidate with my campaign in ensuring that Alaskans understood the urgency and why it was important that I retain this seat,” the senator told a crowd of supporters who gathered here last week. “And further I failed in defending my record and quite honestly allowed it to be trashed there towards the end.”

Referring to the time between her write-in announcement Sept. 17 and the Nov. 2 election, Murkowski promised her supporters, “I’m going to give you the best 45 days of my life.”