Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski held the lead into the night Tuesday in the race for Alaska's U.S. Senate seat, garnering a little more than 50 percent of the vote by 11:30 p.m.
Democratic challenger Tony Knowles had captured 43 percent, or 94,796 votes, to Murkowski's 109,970 votes. Almost three-quarters of the state's precincts were counted at the Empire's press time.
Green Party candidate Jim Sykes won 2,005 votes or just less than 1 percent; nonpartisan Marc Millican won 6,745 votes or a little more than 3 percent; and Alaskan Independence candidate Jerry Sanders earned just more than 1 percent with 2,571 votes.
"We're still looking at the numbers," Murkowski said at about 11:20 p.m. "Our numbers look very good and they have since the first precincts came."
The senator said she and her campaign staff were confident she would win.
Knowles' spokesman Bob King said the former governor has faced close races before and that he was upbeat about the preliminary results. In 1994, Knowles won a second term as governor, beating Republican candidate James Campbell by 583 votes, or fewer than two votes per precinct.
"Ten years ago he was in this very same position," King said. "He's going to wait until those votes come."
Both Murkowski and Knowles are familiar with close elections. He also won two terms as mayor of Anchorage by thin margins. In 2002, Murkowski beat her primary challenger, Nancy Dahlstrom, by 56 votes in her state House race.
The two have fought bitterly over the last year for the Senate seat, raising close to $5 million each in Alaska's most heavily funded election. In the final weeks of the campaign both candidates hammered their opponent on issues such as development of the Arctic Natural Wildlife Refuge, partisan control of the U.S. Senate and nepotism.
Murkowski trailed Knowles in public opinion polls by razor-thin margins for months leading up to Election Day. But pollsters said heavy campaigning from her colleague, Republican U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, has helped her pick up some last-minute voter support.
Anchorage pollster David Dittman said the Murkowski campaign picked up about 5 percentage points within the last two weeks of the campaign, largely based on Stevens' help. Stevens had argued publicly that electing Knowles could put Democrats in charge of the Senate, denying him chairmanship of the Senate Commerce Committee.
Dittman said much of Knowles' support was based on opposition to her father, Gov. Frank Murkowski. In 2002, Gov. Murkowski appointed his daughter, Lisa, to fill his vacated Senate seat. Murkowski also has been criticized on the state level for controversial decisions such as cutting money for seniors and municipalities.
"It's kind of like punishing the daughter for the sins of the father," Dittman said, adding: "You can only be so mad at the governor for so long. It doesn't have staying power."
Murkowski also enjoyed a last-minute boost from $18 billion in federal loan guarantees approved by Congress for construction of a gas pipeline from Alaska to the Midwestern United States.
In the final days of the campaign Knowles hit Murkowski harder on the nepotism issue, breaking a promise early in the election season to not campaign on the issue. He also accused his opponent of giving a $6.5 billion tax break to the oil company Exxon Mobil without demanding the company pay its remaining debt for the Exxon-Valdez oil spill. Murkowski denied the charges, as did Exxon Mobil, that the bill passed in the Senate would serve as a tax break for the company.
Alaska's sole Congressman, Republican Don Young, took a giant early lead against his top opponent, Anchorage Democrat Thomas Higgins. At press time Young had won 152,239 votes, or about 72 percent. Higgins took 46,132 votes, with all other opponents winning less than 5 percent.
Young raised close to $2.4 million in the campaign. Higgins said he spent about $4,500, while Libertarian Al Anders and Green Timothy Feller reported no contributions.
Timothy Inklebarger can be reached at email@example.com.