Murkowski May Launch Write-In Bid, but It Might Not Change Election's Outcome

Lisa Murkowski: Dark horse candidate for Senate? Alex Wong / Getty Images

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, Republican of Alaska, is widely expected to launch a write-in bid for Senate on Friday evening—setting up another interesting skirmish between the Tea Party movement and the GOP establishment.

Murkowski is one of three incumbent senators who have lost primary bids this year. But she has toyed with a third-party or write-in run since conceding to Joe Miller in the Aug. 24 primary. Although her campaign manager was saying Friday afternoon that his candidate still hadn't decided whether to run, the Anchorage Daily News reported Friday that workers were giving out invitations to a "campaign kickoff."

Her run would set off an interesting three-way race for the seat. Murkowski, though no moderate, is closer to the center than Miller, a Tea Party favorite who enjoys the backing of Sarah Palin. Could Murkowski win and keep her seat?

There's not much precedent. The last person elected to the Senate on a write-in ticket was Strom Thurmond in 1954, NBC's First Read helpfully points out. And Jerry McBeath, a professor of political science at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, who follows state politics, says he can't remember any especially successful write-in bids.

The Democratic candidate in the race, Scott McAdams, is mayor of Sitka and widely expected to lose in very red Alaska. Even if she didn't win, could Murkowski draw enough votes to split Republicans and hand the seat to a Democrat? She would enter the race with some cash in the bank, but she'd be faced by the formidable forces of the state and national Republican parties (and Republican activists are already venting their spleens at her, even before Murkowski announces). McAdams, with little funding, might struggle to press his advantage, although it's easy to imagine the national Democratic party pouring money into the race if it sees potential for a pickup.

She'd have to draw a huge mainstream Republican vote, since few Democrats are likely to vote for her. And McBeath says Miller is already moving toward the center to lock those votes up. The key issue is federal dollars, on which Alaska is heavily dependent. Miller is working to answer fears that his fiscal conservatism would lead him to reject those funds. "He says he’s only opposed to earmarks," McBeath says. "He has indicated that he would continue to draw federal dollars to Alaska."

As a result, McBeath says he thinks a Miller win is the most likely scenario, with a Murkowski victory second most likely, and McAdams still unlikely to win. But he also says the race is still in its early stages: everyone's been holding his breath, waiting to see what Murkowski would do, and national dollars could make a big difference.

Odds and ends: Nate Silver asks whether she'd caucus with someone other than the Republicans. Given her political leanings, it's hard to imagine her caucusing with the Democrats—even though she stands to lose her seniority in the Republican Party with a maverick run. In the factoid department, the state board of elections has ruled voters won't have to successfully spell her name to vote for her, which could be a boon. And for more on Murkowski and the role she plays in the Senate now, check out my colleague Daniel Stone's profile from July.

UPDATE, 6 p.m.: FiveThirtyEight's Nate Silver argues that Murkowski has a potential path to victory—if not an easy one.