Alaska Senate Race Still Rages In Court

Posted December 7, 2010 at 6:36pm

The legitimacy of Alaska’s Senate election will go before a state court judge today, but even a quick decision will likely not end the legal battle over the state’s standard for counting write-in ballots or bring the Senate race to a conclusion.

The potential for a drawn-out legal process threatens Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s timely seating and has brought on calls from both parties for Republican nominee Joe Miller, who trails by more than 10,000 votes, to end his challenge.

The Alaska Republican Party, former Minnesota Sen. Norm Coleman (R) and Alaska Sen. Mark Begich (D) have called on Miller to concede, but he is moving forward with his lawsuit. Murkowski’s attorneys have argued that Alaska deserves “full representation” and that her seniority ranking would be erased if there is a gap in service.

Team Murkowski thinks the judge will rule in her favor so they won’t have to worry about that.

“We’re confident the state has plenty of time to rule and get the certification. We just hope that when the court does rule, [Miller] will put the state’s interests above his own,” Murkowski campaign manager Kevin Sweeney told Roll Call.

Miller, fueled by the tea party to keep going, pushed back Monday against criticism that personal ambition is driving his extended pursuit, saying in a statement, “All we want is for all the votes to be counted in accordance with Alaska Statutes.”

The awkward situation has state Republicans helpless in their efforts to encourage Miller to exit the race so that Murkowski, a fellow Republican, can be seated by early January. Their fear is that the state will not be fully represented for important early votes in the next Congress, but Miller is not listening.

“The people that are around him are the anti-party,” Alaska-based GOP consultant Art Hackney said. “In this insistence, now that he’s doing this for the law and not himself, I think he’s building a pretty deeply felt desire to see him out of politics forever.”

Miller is considering future campaigns, and tea party groups have encouraged him to press on. This has put establishment Republicans in Washington, D.C., in a tough position, given they backed Miller as the nominee when he defeated Murkowski in a summer primary, but now they admit they are relieved she was able to win her write-in bid. Murkowski has eased back into her role in the GOP caucus on Capitol Hill after an uncomfortable few months, and she has been attending the party lunches.

As Miller’s legal challenges continue, the National Republican Senatorial Committee has not intervened either way.

“I’ve not heard of any request on their behalf to not proceed,” Miller spokesman Randy DeSoto said. NRSC spokesman Brian Walsh confirmed that position, saying the NRSC thinks “this is a matter for the people of Alaska to decide.”

Other than the pleas from Coleman and a handful others, there has been little public effort to urge Miller to give up. The complicated family politics in Alaska — Murkowski has an ongoing feud with former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who campaigned hard for Miller to unseat the Senator — means there’s not an obvious Republican to step in to speak with Miller.

Ketchikan Superior Court Judge William Carey will hear arguments today in Juneau on the motion for summary judgment filed by the state. The judge will evaluate the grounds of Miller’s argument that the state’s use of discretion when counting write-in ballots was unconstitutional. His previous challenges to ballots that misspelled Murkowski’s name, in some cases by just one letter, were unsuccessful.

The Miller campaign believes the case will be appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court, either by Miller or the state, no matter what Carey decides. If the judge rules in Miller’s favor by finding that his argument has legal grounds, there could be further evidentiary hearings held before Carey, putting off its inevitable appeal.

Murkowski will also have a say in today’s proceedings, as the state threw out more than 2,000 write-in votes cast for her that the Murkowski campaign claims should have been counted. Because of that, Carey last week allowed the Senator an official role in the hearing.

Miller is hoping the courts will throw out more than 8,000 ballots that the state rewarded to Murkowski after overruling a challenge from his campaign. His campaign also says there were numerous irregularities in not only the counting of write-in ballots, but also many of the votes cast by machine.

Beyond throwing out challenged ballots, the campaign wants the standard for counting write-in ballots established in the law. If successful in doing that, the Miller campaign would likely ask for a hand recount of all 255,000 votes cast, which could further delay the seating of a Senator.

After the matter is handled in state court, the election cannot be certified until the federal court lifts its temporary injunction. The Senate race is the only election in the state still not certified.

Miller’s relentless pursuit could be hurting his future election prospects, said Hackney, whose clients include Alaska Rep. Don Young (R).

“His being a neophyte of a politician, he’s sort of clueless to the fact that he’s now radiating to a larger audience an image of himself that makes him less electable,” Hackney said. “If he didn’t win, some of his followers relayed to me that he would be looking to take on Don Young in the next election. My feeling is, bring it on.”