The Unlikely Reincarnation of Lisa Murkowski

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Sen. Lisa Murkowski has reached the end of a dramatic, bizarre, historically confounding path to re-election. Two weeks after the midterm elections, the AP has called Alaska's Senate seat for Murkowski. She joins South Carolina's Strom Thurmond as one of two U.S. senators to win election via write-in.

Just two months ago, Murkowski's loss in her state's Republican primary was one of the harshest humblings of a politician in recent history. Now, her turnaround is a lesson in determination, luck, and the downright weirdness of Alaska politics.

To recap the mind-boggling trajectory of this race:

Back in August, few people paid attention to Alaska's Republican primary because it seemed Murkowski had it locked down. Sarah Palin was touting Tea Partier Joe Miller, and a few ears perked up when Tea Party Express announced a last-minute primary push for him. But Murkowski was so entrenched that a Miller win did not seem possible.

But then, of course, Miller won. Murkowski's camp was flabbergasted, reporters gawked at the biggest upset of an upset-filled primary season, and the Republican establishment braced itself to drop a member of its leadership and embrace her inexperienced usurper.

Before long, rumors started circulating that Murkowski wasn't ready to cave. She looked into running on a third-party ticket, but those options didn't pan out. Speculation that she might run as a write-in was quickly quashed by Washington types, who explained that a write-in bids are Herculean feats only possible on the local level. No U.S. senator had done it since Thurmond!

Once Murkowski announced her candidacy and released an ad explaining to Alaskans why she was running this way, the true craziness began. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell asked her to resign from Senate leadership, and the Republican caucus met to discuss stripping her of her rank on the Energy Committee (which they did not end up doing). In a matter of weeks, Murkowski morphed from one of the highest-ranking, most secure Republicans in the Senate to a party pariah risking her career on what many viewed as a pipe dream.

But for the two months leading up to the election, Murkowski blocked out the noise from Washington and focused on convincing individual Alaskans that they should value her experience and leadership. Her team buckled down on logistics, explaining the write-in process in clever ads and making bracelets with her name that voters could wear into booths. Murkowski firmed up her relationship with native groups, who provided vital support heading into November. The senator also received some help from Miller, whose past reliance on entitlement programs, admission of being reprimanded as a state employee, and combative relationship with the press surely soured some borderline voters on him.

But still, waiting for the polls to close on November 2, Murkowski's fate did not seem set. Alaska's murky approach to write-in vote counting--most states' procedures are not set in stone, since legitimate national write-in campaigns are so rare--promised legal challenges from any, or all, of the three campaigns. Polling was scattered and unreliable, but it seemed likely that a slim margin between votes for Miller and for write-in candidates would lead to a protracted legal battle over what counted as a vote for Murkowski.

Yet here she is, the newly re-elected Sen. Lisa Murkowski, flying back to Alaska to celebrate her unlikely victory. Miller's campaign may still sue, though he has indicated that if her margin is large enough--which it seems to be at this point--he'll back off.

Alaska is an unusual state. It is fair to assume that Murkowski's fate would have been drastically different in the lower 48. But still, her path is a compelling tale of political tenacity that, historically, may become the most significant event of the 2010 elections.

And who isn't eager to watch Senate Republicans scramble to pull her back into the fold, and to see whether this election has permanently changed the way she views party politics?

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Nicole Allan is a former senior editor at The Atlantic.

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