Sen. Lisa Murkowski had just endured a humbling defeat in the GOP primary that had seemingly ended her political career when a waiter at an Anchorage restaurant came up to her with a message.
"I said, 'Please do this. Don't leave us in this situation,'" Patrick Blomquist said, taking his chances by violating restaurant policy that he says forbids staff from talking politics with customers. "I was a little nervous because basically my job was on the line. But my state was (also) on the line."
Murkowski was so touched by the encounter and others like it as she contemplated a write-in candidacy that she jumped back in the race with a reinvigorated sense, culminating with her victory Wednesday — what she called "our miracle" — following a week-long vote count.
"I promised during this campaign that I would do everything, everything that I could do to best represent you," Murkowski told supporters Wednesday night, her voice shaking at times. She added later: "I pledge to you today and from this day forward that I will do everything that I can to keep that commitment to you all."
Murkowski is the first U.S. Senate candidate since 1954 to win a write-in campaign, a feat made possible by her widespread name recognition, savvy marketing, help from a well-financed PAC formed by Alaska Native corporations, and the missteps of opponent Joe Miller.
In mounting the outsider run, Murkowski displayed an energy she lacked during the primary, when she let attacks on her record go unchecked and paid little attention to the Sarah Palin-backed Miller, who was making his first run for statewide office. She said she was offering Alaskans a choice between the "extremist" views of Miller and the "inexperience" of Democrat Scott McAdams, a small-town mayor.
The normally cerebral Murkowski declared the gloves off. She said she was in the race to win it, asked Alaskans to stand with her, and she taunted Palin and a Republican establishment that saw her as going on a fool's errand.
"Well, perhaps it's time they met one Republican woman who won't quit on Alaska," she said to cheers in September, a not-so-subtle dig on Palin's decision to step down early as Alaska governor.
Palin did not immediately comment about the result. Miller refused to concede the race, with campaign spokesman Randy DeSoto saying "decisions will be made shortly" on whether to quit or keep fighting with a recount or legal challenge.
The outcome almost never happened.
In the days before Murkokwski was set to return to Alaska from Washington to announce whether she'd run, she went back and forth, with campaign staffers believing the night before that she was out. She was prepared to return to private life after an eight years in office that saw her star rise in the GOP ranks. She was torn between honoring the party system — taking her lumps and backing the nominee — and her own sense of duty. She also questioned how she'd win without help from the national party or the PACs whose money she depended on for years to fatten her campaign bank account.
Murkowski said it was the outpouring of support from the Alaskan public that ultimately convinced her to run: People like the waiter in Anchorage. Or the sobbing woman at a boat ramp in Alaska's wild Interior who pleaded with her to stay in the race. Or the voicemail from a friend telling her she had an obligation to fulfill.
She knew what was at stake: A loss could have meant the end of her political career. But a win meant carrying on the legacy of her mentor, the late Sen. Ted Stevens, revered in Alaska for bringing home billions in federal aid and projects during his 40 years in the Senate.
"If I lost this, it would have been Lisa Murkowski that lost," she told The Associated Press Wednesday night. "I won, and the whole state wins. The whole state wins, and everybody should rightly take the credit for this."
"She didn't give up," said John Tracy, who was part of her ad team. "There was a sense among the volunteers and staff that not only was this possible but it could be done. That was a credit to her."
She focused much of her campaign educating Alaskans on how to cast a proper write-in ballot. Her wrists often were stacked with rubbery blue wristbands — as much a sign of solidarity as a crib sheet for filling out a ballot — that featured a darkened ballot oval and "Lisa Murkowski." She ran an ad riffing on a spelling bee and ended rallies or speeches by leading a chorus of "M-U-R, K-O-W, S-K-I."
Alaskans cast more than 92,700 ballots for her perfectly; more than 8,100 others were counted for her but challenged by Miller's ballot observers for things like misspellings, extra words or legibility.
Murkowski billed this as the campaign for all Alaskans as she sought to build and energize the broad coalition of support she needed to win. She encouraged people to come up with their own gimmicks and to share them with neighbors and social groups and on networking sites like Facebook.
She got other outside help, too, namely from Alaskans Standing Together, a PAC formed by Alaska Native corporations that spent nearly $1.3 million to defeat Miller. Pollster Ivan Moore credits this effort with helping turn out the rural vote critical to Murkowski's win.
"She had the credibility," Moore said. "She was the incumbent; she had the experience and the money. And you had this profound dissatisfaction with the choices on the ballot."
Her entry in the race caused a rift within the state GOP, and left many voters conflicted. She and McAdams were vying for independents and on-the-fence Democrats. Several write-in ballots, inspected by hand-counters over the last week, showed a filled-in oval for Miller but then a line through his name and Murkowski's name written in below. One such voter scribbled in "Changed my mind." Another wrote in "Lisa Murkowski Ind/Rep?"
Gail Phillips, who served in the state Legislature with Murkowski and left her that voicemail, said she wasn't convinced that Murkowski could win until mid-October, when she saw "a lot of old timers," staunch Republicans who stood behind their party's nominee, coming into Murkowski's headquarters with money or looking for ways to volunteer.
"I knew at that time we were going to win," said Phillips, who helped coordinate thousands of volunteers.
Murkowski hardly returns to Washington with a mandate; she garnered about 40 percent of the vote, and expectations are high that she'll return to the pragmatic, centrist ways she was long known for. But she's going with a new perspective, longtime friend Debbie Reinwand said.
While many of Murkowski's supporters saw her primary loss as a wake-up call and the general election as a massive do-over, it also caused Murkowski to go through a "personal metamorphosis," she said.
"She's back where wants to be: empowered by Alaskans, beholden only to Alaskans at this point, and that's a huge difference," said Reinwand. Murkowski voluntarily resigned her leadership position within the GOP conference to run as a write-in and has already signaled her readiness to break with the party over a moratorium on earmarks.
"She now knows it's OK to be Lisa, the intelligent person, protective of Alaska interests and not always go with the flow on the national level," she said.
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