Supporters of Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski's reelection bid were more optimistic Friday after the Alaska Division of Elections revealed that besides the more than 11,000 absentee ballots that have come in so far, there are an additional 8,000-plus questioned ballots still to be counted in the Republican primary race Aug. 23 in which Tea Party candidate Joe Miller won the initial precinct count by 1,668 votes (see Daily GPI, Aug. 27).

The follow-up count is to begin Tuesday. Absentee ballots must be postmarked by election day but can be received as much as 15 days later. Some of those still to be counted will be for the Democratic primary, but most are expected to be for the hotly contested Republican contest. Additional counts have been scheduled for Sept. 3 and Sept. 8, with the results to be certified by Sept. 17.

Murkowski also could request a recount. If the winner's margin is less than half a percentage point, the state will foot the bill for the statewide recount.

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, which could include a write-in third party bid, an option that generally does not have a high success rate.

Neither the Republican 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 Republican 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, aligning himself with an abortion measure related to teens that was also on the ballot, political analysts said. He also has benefited from strong support from Palin.

As ranking Republican on the powerful Senate Energy Committee Murkowski would be in line to be chairman of that powerful committee if the Republicans takeover the Senate in the next election. Murkowski's loss would leave that top Republican slot 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 led the defense of the established oil and gas industry, providing leadership on all major pieces of energy legislation. Alaska also would sustain some damage if she loses. The state, which for many years has fed at the federal pork barrel trough by virtue of several long-time incumbents, could go on a starvation diet with a freshman senator and sophomore senator Democrat Mark Begich, who was elected in 2008, both figuring low on the seniority scale. Part of Murkowski's campaign was about her ability to bring home the bacon, which some pundits have noted is not something you brag about during this time of high budget deficits.

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