ANCHORAGE - Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski trailed her lesser-known conservative opponent Tuesday in a surprisingly tight race that was seen as a test of the political power of Sarah Palin and the tea party movement.
Joe Miller held a nearly 2,350-vote lead with 61 percent of precincts reporting as he looked to pull off one of the biggest political upsets of the year. Miller had 51.5 percent of the vote, compared with 48.5 percent for Murkowski.
Miller is a decorated Gulf War veteran backed by Palin and the Tea Party Express who sought to cast Murkowski as being too liberal and part of the problem in an out-of-control Washington. It is a campaign strategy that has helped oust other incumbents this year.
Murkowski has proudly touted her seniority after eight years in office, and said her roles on the appropriations and energy committees put her in a strong position to ensure Alaskans' voices are heard. She denounced Miller for making what she considered deceptive statements about her votes and statements. He stood behind everything he'd said.
Miller told reporters he's trying to be realistic about the early results showing him slightly in the lead. He spoke to reporters at election central headquarters in Anchorage, where his supporters chanted "Miller Time!" and "Go Joe Go!" Miller joked on Twitter, "What's the moose hunting like in the Beltway?"
Murkowski did not appear at the location where votes are tallied and candidates often show up. She instead stayed at her election gathering a few miles away.
After keeping a low profile for much of the race, Palin recorded a robocall for Miller in the final days of the campaign and touted him as a "man of the people" on her Facebook page. The former Alaska governor also repeated a claim that Murkowski had waffled on her position on repealing the federal health care overhaul - claims the senator has called false.
Palin has been on a losing streak as of late with her candidates faltering, and many were expecting similar results in Alaska with Murkowski holding such a name-recognition and fundraising advantage.
Palin tweeted late Tuesday that she's "keeping fingers crossed" and "prayers upward" about the race.
Palin and the Murkowski family have a complicated history.
Palin trounced Murkowski's father, Frank, in the 2006 gubernatorial primary - the race that would launch her national political career. Last year, she said she'd raise money for Lisa Murkowski, and even contributed to her campaign, quieting widespread speculation that Palin would challenge Murkowski for the seat. But the women have clashed on issues like health care, though they've denied any bad blood between them.
Murkowski has fought back against Miller and Palin's claims. A radio ad on the election's eve calls Miller out as twisting the truth about Murkowski's position on the federal health care overhaul. Miller has stood by his statements.
"Alaskans deserve to know the honest truth," she said, "and they haven't gotten it from Miller."
The race was disrupted when former Sen. Ted Stevens died in a plane crash, with both candidates briefly suspending campaign ads.
Miller had the blessing of the tea party crowd. The national Tea Party Express reported spending at least $550,000 to help Miller score an upset.
Murkowski was appointed to the Senate at the end of 2002 by her father and won her first term in 2004.
On the Democratic ticket, Scott McAdams defeated Frank J. Vondersaar and Jacob Seth Kern.
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