Sometimes it’s nice to be wrong. When Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, lost the Republican Senate primary to Joe Miller in August, I thought she would have little chance of winning a general election contest as a write-in. After all, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., was the last person elected to the Senate as a write-in, and that was 62 years ago. When something has not succeeded in more than a half century, a person is unlikely to pull it off in a specific race. Also the assumption was that anyone who seemed to have slept through a primary loss would be unlikely to conquer the arduous task of winning a three-way race just more than two months later. It seemed to me that she would have been better off accepting the defeat, rebuilding bridges back home, and taking on freshman Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in two years. But that assumption was wrong, and Murkowski won on November 2.
Even though I have had limited personal exposure to Murkowski, I have to say that I like her. At an off-the-record luncheon a few years ago, I found her to be refreshing, remarkably candid, well-grounded, and unaffected, someone driven by common sense more than ideology. It was clear that she was an important and frequently discordant voice in the Republican Senate Conference that was more homogeneous than it needed to be.
But a more telling personal exchange with Murkowski came on September 1, 2008, on the first night of the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. Just three days before, then-Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin—who had beaten Murkowski’s father, incumbent Frank Murkowski in a 2006 gubernatorial primary—had been chosen by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to be his vice presidential nominee. I was walking through the lobby of the St. Paul convention center when Murkowski ran over and grabbed me, and she started telling me what a great choice Palin was, what a terrific running mate she would be for McCain, and how the Alaska governor would really help the GOP ticket that fall. I strongly suspected that she didn’t believe a word of it and indeed must have hated the person who unseated her father, but her desire to be supportive of her party in a very challenging year for the GOP was admirable. I remember thinking, "I don’t believe for a second that you like Palin, or agreed with the choice. But good for you, you are a bigger person than I would be under the circumstances." This year, when Palin supported an unknown Miller, that conversation in St. Paul came back to me and with it the thought, “No good deed goes unpunished.” From some of the newspaper reports of comments that Murkowski has made more recently, there would appear to be an understandable limit to her generosity toward Palin.
It was curious what happened just after her Senate primary loss, when colleagues in the Senate Republican Conference met to hold a secret-ballot vote on whether to strip Murkowski of her position as the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee, a slot of obvious importance to Alaska. After hearing the Senate’s undisputed tea party leader, Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., give an impassioned plea that Republicans needed to show their support for fellow tea party candidate Miller, her colleagues voted to keep her in that post, what was interpreted to me by one GOP senator who was there as a clear snub of DeMint.
Weeks later, when it became clear she had done the near impossible by winning as a write-in, my thought was “good for her.” A nice and deserving person finished first after all. Had she lost, I would liked to have asked Miller how it felt to be challenging the validity of ballots because voters didn’t spell "Murkowski" right, and if that was the basis on which he wanted to be seated as a senator. Some of her Republican colleagues probably felt gratified that they had made the choice not to alienate her by stripping her of that slot, which would have undoubtedly hurt her standing back home.
There’s no question that the innovative wristbands reminding voters the correct spelling of Murkowski and other elements of her general-election win will be remembered by future candidates in write-in campaigns.
One of the more interesting questions hovering over the 112th Congress is how will the relationship evolve between DeMint and his tea party disciples on the one hand, and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and the more mainstream, traditional Republican establishment on the other. More to the point, how will some of the Republican members who might normally be expected to align themselves in the McConnell establishment camp react, knowing that they could be threatened in 2012 or 2014 GOP primaries by tea party candidates? It isn’t hard to imagine some of those folks falling all over themselves to become DeMint’s BFF, including those who privately may have cast a ballot in favor of Murkowski back in September. The same struggles will be taking place in the House but will likely be somewhat less personal and public. But oh to be a fly on the wall when McConnell and presumed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, sit down together alone and compare notes about trying to keep the tea party from spilling out and making a mess.
This article appears in the November 22, 2010 edition of National Journal Daily PM Update.