Absentee ballots are yet to be counted, but it appears that a little-known Tea Party candidate in a surprise upset has seized the Alaska Republican U.S. Senate nomination from incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski in last Tuesday’s primary. As ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, Murkowski had been in line to be chairman of that powerful committee if the Republicans takeover the Senate in the next election.

Murkowski, a leader on the Republican side of the Senate on energy issues, was trailing challenger Joe Miller by a little more than 1,600 votes when the final tallies came in Wednesday from the precincts. As of Thursday morning, nearly 8,000 absentee ballots had come in, and the count on those will start next week. Miller, who was endorsed by former governor and Tea Party star Sarah Palin, was leading with 47,027 votes to 45,359 for Murkowski after the final precinct results came in late Wednesday afternoon.

Murkowski has said she has not given up and will await the absentee ballot count before considering other alternatives. If she is definitely shut out of the Republican nomination, she could run as a write-in independent candidate, or become the candidate for the Libertarian Party, if that party’s nominee would agree to step aside. It is too late to get her name on the printed ballot as an independent. Either way, a three-way race in November would likely split the Republican party and could result in a Democratic victory.

Neither apparent Republican nominee Joe Miller, nor Democratic nominee Scott McAdams, mayor of Sitka, had been well known prior to this election. Numerous polls prior to the election had shown Murkowski easily ahead for the nomination. However, in the last few weeks Miller has run a strong negative campaign against Murkowski and has played up his strong anti-abortion stand, political analysts said. He also has benefited from strong support from Palin.

Murkowski’s loss would leave the top Republican slot on the Senate Energy Committee up for grabs. Next in seniority on the Republican side is Sen. Richard Burr of North Carolina, but he also is in a tight re-election race. Other Republicans expected to remain on the committee in the next Congress, are (in order of seniority) John Barrasso of Wyoming, Jim Risch of Idaho, John McCain of Arizona, Jeff Sessions of Alabama and Bob Corker of Tennessee.

Murkowski has been credited with helping to maintain a dialogue with Senate Energy Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) and other Democrats on the committee, which has enabled the committee to reach some compromises and make some progress on energy legislation. While supporting some measure of climate change legislation, Murkowski balked at cap-and-trade and has led the defense of the established energy industry, providing leadership on all major pieces of energy legislation.

If she were to be elected to represent Alaska as an independent, she could still caucus with the Republicans and would have a strong chance of retaining her leading committee positions. That would be up to the Republican caucus, but Capitol Hill watchers pointed out that Murkowski has many friends. If she loses, the state of Alaska, which for many years has fed at the federal pork barrel trough, could go on a starvation diet with a freshman senator and a sophomore senator, Mark Begich, who was elected in 2008, figuring low down on the seniority scale.

Absentee ballots in the Alaska primary must have been postmarked on primary election day, Aug. 24, but could arrive up to 10 days after the election if mailed in the United States and 15 days if mailed overseas. The Division of Elections will do its first count next Tuesday (Aug. 31), with additional counts scheduled for Sept. 3 and Sept. 8.

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