Sen. Lisa Murkowski may have done the unimaginable in pulling off a history- making write-in candidacy at a political moment when tea party-backed candidates had a grip on Republican momentum. As the election returns rolled in Tuesday evening, the fact that tens of thousands of people had written in her name had just begun to sink in. Murkowski took the stage at the Dena'ina Center at 11 p.m., with her husband, her sons and Rep. Don Young.
"They said, 'You can't do it, you can't win a write-in campaign,' " she said. "Not in Alaska, not anywhere. Do they know Alaska?"
"No!" her supporters screamed, then broke into the chant that defined President Obama's 2008 campaign: "Yes we can!"
"When they tell us we can't do something, what do we do?" Murkowski said. "We stand up just a little bit straighter, a little bit taller and we take it on."
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Earlier in the evening, Murkowski entered a ballroom at the Dena'ina center to a roar of applause and cheers. She hugged her father, former senator and Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski, then one of her sons.
Within minutes, her campaign had flashed early returns on a screen overlooking the ballroom. Murkowski, with the first chunk of votes in, led the way with 39 percent of the vote. Some supporters jumped up and down in excitement. Others chanted, "Six more years!"
"I was shocked," said supporter Alysia Mitchell, who along with her husband, Bruce, dropped off pumpkin bread and coffee to volunteers in the morning. Her main job as a campaign worker was talking her husband, Bruce, out of supporting Republican Joe Miller's candidacy, Mitchell said.
In an interview, Murkowski spoke as though she wasn't quite sure she was the one who had needed persuading to pull off such a campaign, or the voters of Alaska.
"There was a challenge that went out to Alaskans, it was a challenge to me to take this up," she said. "But in turn, I challenged Alaskans, and said, 'OK, you've got to step outside you're comfort zone too.' And they did."
Murkowski began Election Day in Girdwood, where she voted, and where her team tried to get a cup of the coffee at the town's well-known bakery. But the snow had shut everything down, so instead, she wandered around talking to her neighbors.
She attended Mass with her family and then had lunch with them at Anchorage's Lucky Wishbone -- both are family political traditions on Election Day. (At the Lucky Wishbone, she ran into her Democratic competition, Scott McAdams, "who must have that lucky tradition too," Murkowski joked.) She spent the afternoon making a final round of phone calls to supporters and volunteers who needed a pat on the back for their work.
"This is Lisa Murkowski from the Lisa Murkowski campaign," she said into a volunteer's pink-encased iPhone, eliciting giggles from the other supporters in the room, where spirits were high all day.
"There's some good vibes out there," she said. "All morning we've been talking about the fact that the Giants haven't won since 1954, the last time there was a write-in campaign in the United States Senate."
The write-in effort required the support of the sort of Alaskans, particularly women, who weren't at the rally, such as Kathy Aloia, 45, a taxicab dispatcher who voted at lunchtime at East High School.
Aloia said she hadn't met Murkowski but likes her and thinks she's done a good job representing Alaska in Washington. She said she once resented how Murkowski was appointed by her father, but she feels Murkowski long ago proved herself on her own.
"I filled in the oval and wrote in her name, just like they said," Aloia said.
Murkowski said she's been so focused on her own race that she hadn't had time to absorb the Republican-friendly returns that were rolling in from East to West. But she said that she, too, had experienced the national mood that swept Republicans into office as the day progressed.
"From Alaska's perspective, there has clearly been a mood, a response here in the state, concern about the level of government involvement in our lives, and people don't like that," she said. "There's some pretty strong resistance to what we're seeing out of the Obama administration, whether it's health care reform or some of the other initiatives. I'm clearly, clearly listening to that."
But Murkowski said she also thought her write-in campaign has "electrified" the state because people wanted their Senate candidates to focus on Alaska, not the national agenda.
"I have always been Alaska's senator, I have always focused on putting this state first," she said. "I think Miller took more, I don't know, call it a national approach? But I don't think it was an approach that dealt directly with what's going on here in my community."
"This is about Alaska," she said, then repeated it. "This is about Alaska."