Incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) gained some ground Tuesday on Tea Party candidate Joe Miller as the state began counting thousands of absentee ballots and disputed ballots in the state’s Republican primary.

Miller was ahead of Murkowski by 1,668 votes at the close of the Aug. 24 primary, but the gap was narrowed by 208 votes to 1,460 votes, according to counting results posted by Alaska’s Division of Elections at 4 p.m. EDT Tuesday (see Daily GPI, Aug. 27).

Miller was endorsed by former governor and Tea Party star Sarah Palin, who has been in a bitter rivalry with the Murkowski family for years. It started when former Gov. Frank Murkowski appointed his daughter to fill his seat in the U.S. Senate.

The vote count was expected to continue throughout Tuesday, with remaining votes to be counted on Friday and Sept. 8, the Associated Press reported. Following the primary race, it was estimated that as many as 19,000 absentee and disputed ballots needed to be counted (see Daily GPI, Aug. 30).

Murkowski “remains confident that the count will come out in her favor,” spokesman Robert Dillon told NGI.

While she has gained some ground, Murkowski — who thought she had the GOP primary sewn up when she left Washington, DC for the August recess — is now in for the fight of her life. Murkowski is trailing, some critics believe, because she failed to go on the attack against Miller during the campaign and opted not to spend heavily to get her message across.

Murkowski has been a major figure on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. As the ranking Republican, she has worked closely in bipartisan fashion with Chairman Jeff Bingaman (D-NM) to get more legislation out of their committee than any other in the Senate. This is one reason why she has been called a “partial Republican” by her colleagues in Washington and in Alaska.

Her defeat would be a major loss for the oil and gas industry, not only in Alaska but nationwide.

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