Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski trails a "tea party"-backed challenger by a slim margin in the state's Republican primary held on Tuesday that's still too close to call.
If the results hold, Mrs. Murkowski would join a growing list of Republican Party insiders who have fallen to political upstarts in primary elections in a year that has featured an unusually high level of GOP infighting.
"It was really her race to lose, and she's almost lost it," said University of Alaska at Fairbanks political science professor Jerry McBeath. "It's going to be very difficult for her to come through."
With 98 percent of precincts counted, Mrs. Murkowski trailed Joe Miller, a Fairbanks lawyer, by 1,960 votes out of more than 91,000 counted. As many as 16,000 absentee votes, as well as an undetermined number of provisional or questioned ballots, remain to be counted.
Mr. Miller had 45,909 votes, or 51 percent, while Murkowski had 43,949 votes, or 49 percent.
It could be a week or more before the final results of the race are known, as the state Division of Elections said it received about 7,600 absentee-type ballots by Monday.
A significant number of absentee ballots were sent to military personal who are expected to support Mr. Miller, who is a decorated Gulf War veteran, Mr. McBeath said.
"Lisa Murkowski didn't put together a [campaign] package that was compelling," he said. "She is, after all, the incumbent and has done good service for the state in the eight years she had been in office, and she didn't effectively advertise that to the voters."
Mrs. Murkowski faced a series of campaign obstacles, that, while potentially not fatal individually, collectively may have derailed her political career.
Mr. Miller was little known outside of Fairbanks until he received an enormous campaign boost with the endorsement of former Alaska Republican Gov. Sarah Palin.
Mrs. Palin's backing led the California-based Tea Party Express organization to reportedly spend more than $500,000 on behalf of Mr. Miller with advertisements that portrayed Mrs. Murkowski as a liberal who too often aligned herself with Democrats.
A round of automated robo calls by Mrs. Palin on behalf of Mr. Miller in the days leading up to the election also are credited with giving the challenger an extra push at the polls.
Tensions between the Murkowski and Palin families date to at least 2006, when Mrs. Palin trounced Mrs. Murkowski's father, Frank, in the 2006 gubernatorial primary that launched her national political career.
An anti-abortion-related referendum on the Alaska ballot also may have hurt Mrs. Murkowski, who generally supports abortion rights. "Proposition 2," which easily passed, calls for parents to be notified before their daughters age 17 and younger receive an abortion.
"The Prop 2 supporters were our supporters, largely," said Mr. Miller on Tuesday night, according to the Anchorage Daily News. "Frankly, I think the pro-life vote was important."
Another re-election challenge was some voters' lingering resentment to Mrs. Murkowski's appointment to the Senate in 2002 by her father, who had vacated the seat to become governor, experts say.
Mrs. Murkowski, who had been significantly ahead in the polls this year, was accused by some of not taking her challenger seriously enough.
"He was a credible opponent from the minute he filed, and if you want to stay in office, if you want to survive, then you have to take that extremely seriously," Mr. McBeath said. "That's the only thing you think about doing. She didn't."
Mrs. Murkowski wasn't the only Republican establishment candidate to struggle in Tuesday's primaries nationwide, as multimillionaire health care executive Rick Scott edged Florida Attorney General Bill McCollum to win the state's GOP gubernatorial primary.
Mr. Scott used a campaign tactic employed successfully by other outsider, tea party-backed candidates fighting establishment Republicans this year in intraparty contests; accuse your opponent of being a party insider who has abandoned true conservative values.
"You have the opportunity to vote for a principled, conservative outsider with a track record of creating jobs or a flip-flopping career politician," said Mr. Scott in an e-mail to supporters earlier this month.
The Florida GOP, which strongly had backed Mr. McCollum, on Wednesday appeared to offer an olive branch to Mr. Scott.
"Republicans know what is at stake and will rally in support of Rick Scott as the campaign for governor moves forward," said Florida Republican Party National Committeeman Paul Senft. "He has good, new and fresh ideas that will help the state of Florida during these difficult budget times."
Republican Sen. Robert F. Bennett of Utah also was shown the door by party voters in April by denying him a spot on the party's primary ballot.
Mr. Bennett, like many other incumbents, faced a general anti-Washington backlash. His support of the Wall Street bailout in 2008 further disenfranchised him from many party faithful.
Republican Reps. Parker Griffith of Alabama and Bob Inglis of South Carolina also have failed in their primary bids this year.
This story is based in part on wire service reports.
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Sean Lengell covers Congress and national politics and can be reached at email@example.com.
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