Political prognosticators were surprised to wake up this morning and see Joe Miller holding a narrow lead of less than 3,000 votes over Sen. Lisa Murkowski in Alaska’s Republican primary.
Unofficial returns as of this morning — with 84.2 percent of precincts reporting — showed Miller leading with 45,188 votes to Murkowski’s 42,633 votes. That’s Miller 51.5%-Murkowski 48.6%. What’s more, the votes outstanding are from rural areas and 8,400 so-far-unreturned absentee ballots, so the final result won’t be known for at least a week and might be undetermined until Sept. 8.
Whichever Republican wins, conventional wisdom takes a hit. As we reported, broad consensus both in Washington and Alaska was that Murkowski would win by a wide margin. If the senator pulls it off, it will be very close. There were few public polls, and they all showed Murkowski in the lead.
We took a look at several internal polls as well, which also showed her besting Miller. But Miller’s folks sounded very confident this week in an interview with TPM. He had the backing of former Gov. Sarah Palin, conservative groups and the tea party.
The Anchorage Daily News reports this morning that Miller credited Palin last night.
“I’m absolutely certain that was pivotal,” he said.
Murkowski on Tuesday night took a shot at Palin, saying that when Palin resigned as governor last summer she said she would use her new national role to help out Alaska.
“I think she’s out for her own self-interest. I don’t think she’s out for Alaska’s interest,” Murkowski said as she waited at her campaign headquarters for results to come in.
A Murkowski spokesman told the Daily News that the senator was looking to benefit from rural and coastal areas of Alaska: “We knew the race was going to be tight. The rural areas have yet to come in and we know Sen. Murkowski is going to be very strong in the rural areas.”
The Daily News breaks it down:
Most of the precincts that hadn’t reported were in rural areas, particularly Western Alaska including the regions around Bethel, Nome and Kotzebue, where paper ballots are counted by hand. Counting was to continue through the night, according to the Division of Elections. There were also some precincts yet to report in the Dillingham-Aleutians region and the university area of Fairbanks. But all those of tend to be Democratic-leaning areas where many independent voters might choose the Democratic primary ballot. Those who are registered Democrats aren’t allowed to vote in the Republican primary so can’t have a say in the Miller-Murkowski race.
The final results of the race won’t be known for over a week. The Alaska Division of Elections said over 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and as of Monday night 7,600 had been returned. The first count of absentees will be next Tuesday and there will be two subsequent counts as the absentee votes trickle in on Sept. 3 and on Sept. 8.
Update: As of 6:30 pm ET, Murkowski continued to trail Miller, 45,128 to 46,620 with 99.5 percent of precincts reporting — a margin of less than 1,500 votes.