ANCHORAGE, Alaska — Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is on the cusp of vindication after waging a high stakes — and long shot — write-in campaign to keep her job.
Initial returns show write-in ballots holding a 13,439-vote edge over GOP nominee Joe Miller, and though it's not clear how many of those are for her or will be counted as valid, she's confident enough in her winning to tell supporters that they'd "made history." The write-in count starts Wednesday in Juneau.
Murkowski needed broad-based support — from fellow Republicans, Democrats, independents — to be successful in what was a three-way race (Democrat Scott McAdams has conceded). And while a win would return her to Washington, to the colleagues and party leaders who turned their backs on her after her humiliating primary loss to the Sarah Palin-backed Miller, it also raises questions about how she would legislate.
"I think so much about representation is trusting me to do what I think is the right thing," she said.
Expectations are high.
Many conservatives see the support she won from labor, Alaska Native groups and Democrats as an indication she will be less likely to push for less federal spending, an overhaul of federal contracting that gives Native corporations preferential treatment and an anti-abortion agenda.
And some, like independent Bethany Marcum, feel marginalized because Murkowski labeled Miller an extremist — and Marcum shares many of Miller's limited-government views.
"I don't think I'll be heard," Marcum, 44, said.
Bob Poe, a nonpartisan who unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for governor this year, hopes the last few months have been a wake-up call for Murkowski and that she'll reclaim her mantle as a moderate.
Murkowski, who shifted right after President Barack Obama took office and as her star within the GOP rose, maintains she will approach issues as they come to her. Though she plans to caucus with Republicans, she said she won't be beholden to any special interests or party — an initial sign of that perhaps coming in her decision not to try to reclaim her leadership post within the GOP conference. She voluntarily resigned it in deciding to make her outsider run.
She said she plans to listen to Alaskans "and hopefully you will recognize that I'm using intellect and judgment (and) while we may disagree on the final vote you will at least acknowledge that I gave due consideration."
During the hotly contested campaign, Miller and tea party-minded surrogates like Palin sought to paint Murkowski as an out-of-touch liberal, a Republican in name only. McAdams, meanwhile, called her dangerously conservative, willing to put party over policy and apt to veer farther right if elected, out of fear of losing another primary.
Murkowski rejected both tags and cast herself as the voice for "all Alaskans," stressing the benefits her seniority could yield and willingness to work with Democrats as reasons to support her. She defended her move right under Obama and a Democratic-led Congress — a shift that included opposition to key pieces of the Democratic agenda, such as the federal health care overhaul and stimulus — as motivated by concerns of excess spending and government overreach, problems she pledged to continue fighting.
Yet, unlike Miller, she's not staunchly anti-abortion, supporting exceptions for cases including those involving rape or incest. She doesn't believe building a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border is a good solution to dealing with illegal immigration. And she believes raising the eligibility age for Social Security is more acceptable than a wholesale transition out of the program.
Pollster Marc Hellenthal doesn't believe Murkowski would return to Washington with a mandate.
"That would be a little strong, almost a little egotistical. The only reason we're doing this is because she screwed up the primary," said Hellenthal, who polled for Alaskans Standing Together, the PAC formed by Alaska Native corporations that spent nearly $1.3 million to help Murkowski win the general election.
Some Murkowski supporters, like Lori Gonzalez, of Anchorage, felt Miller's primary win was a "shock to the system" for voters who thought Murkowski would cruise to a victory over the political upstart. She saw the write-in effort as a massive do-over. "I don't really see her losing to be an option," she said.
Political scientist Carl Shepro doesn't think Murkowski has to change much, if at all.
"I would think that she was basically representing what she perceived to be the majority of Alaskans" before, he said.
Murkowski, likewise, believes she has to keep doing what she's been doing — returning to the state, meeting with voters, listening to them — but be more aggressive in her approach and make sure she truly is hearing all sides. She doesn't intend to contribute willingly to gridlock in Washington.
"One thing that I am taking away from this election, I think Alaskans want to see a level of cooperation, a level of collaboration with not just those in my conference but with other members and really working on that consensus-building so that we get the good governance," she said.
"I don't think they want me to go back and just be an obstructionist. I think they want to see me create good things for Alaska."
© Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.