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Lisa Murkowski's Moderate Mission

The Alaska senator's game plan for keeping her seat.

Anchorage, Alaska—It’s the Saturday afternoon before Election Day, and El Tango, an Argentine restaurant in midtown Anchorage, is packed for a campaign event. About 50 people, mostly women, are bustling around and chatting about immigration reform, education, and, occasionally, how extreme the Tea Party movement is. One person sits in the back of the room reading about the foreclosure crisis. The attendees are from numerous ethnic groups; everything from Spanish to Somali is being spoken. If the stereotypical Alaskan is supposed to be a flannel-wearing, gun-totting, conservative male, you won’t find him here.

Around 4 p.m., the main attraction arrives: Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski. She's wearing jeans and a yellow fleece jacket, and she has the comfortable air of someone surrounded by old friends. She’s here to address what she calls her “diversity coalition,” a group of supporters that will mostly be reaching out to minority voters in the lead-up to Tuesday. When she speaks to the crowd, Murkowski avoids controversy and keeps things friendly. She doesn’t bring up the DREAM Act, for instance, which would provide young undocumented immigrants a path to citizenship. (Murkowski missed a vote on it in September.) Instead, she uses the word “unity” and speaks a little bit of Spanish. She talks about the importance of bringing jobs to the state through the highway reauthorization bill and says government is about "how we unite our families, how we provide for education for our young people, [and] how we provide for health care."

It’s all a part of her strategy to keep her job. In August, Murkowski unexpectedly lost the GOP primary to Joe Miller, a self-proclaimed “constitutional conservative and Sarah Palin-backed candidate." Though Murkowski’s job approval rating has hovered around 70 percent in recent years, an advertising blitz from the Tea Party Express that cast her as too liberal, combined with an anti-abortion ballot measure that brought out the state’s most conservative voters, ended up pushing Miller to victory. Now, Murkowski is trying to hold onto her seat through an intensive write-in campaign—a rare but always uphill battle in a big, statewide election. (No senator has won via write-in since Strom Thurmond in South Carolina in 1954.)

To win that battle, Murkowski is focusing on constituents like those in her diversity coalition: moderate voters from varied backgrounds who are less concerned with whether the Obama administration should have tackled health care reform than with whether their local communities are getting the economic support they need. Given that Miller, with his healthy dose of Tea Party anger, wants to wean the state off federal funding, and that her Democratic opponent, Scott McAdams, is a 40-year-old relative unknown, Murkowski’s tack just might give her the steam she needs to be able to pull this unlikely campaign off.

While the term “grassroots” gets tossed around a lot at El Tango, Murkowski’s campaign operation is more complex and well-oiled than that. She had about $1.2 million going into the general election, and many of her backers are in positions of influence: mayors, non-profit leaders, corporate types. Her campaign has attracted industry groups, like the United Fishermen of Alaska; she spent last Friday night with Alaska Airlines’ pilots. Then, there are the state’s Native corporations, which banded together to form a Super PAC that can independently spend an unlimited amount of money on pro-Murkowski ads.

And yet, being a write-in candidate has enabled Murkowski to push a more maverick, middle-of-the-road image of herself: Before being a Republican, or an Obama opponent, she’s an Alaskan. She hasn’t really gone after the president much since the primary, and, although she initially pushed back against Miller’s attacks that she was too liberal, she now mostly says that Miller is too extreme.

She’s spent a lot of time at events like the diversity coalition gathering, reaching out to voters looking for a lawmaker who knows what Alaska’s various communities need and how to get it. Taking a few lessons from the late Ted Stevens, Murkowski is presenting herself as a master of pothole politics in a state that seems to have more potholes than roads—and not having to carry the banner of the Republican Party has only helped her put pragmatism before partisan wrangling.

Members of the diversity coalition have produced voting guides in Russian, Gambian, Hmong, and Tagalog, among other languages, to promote Murkowski among the state’s many ethnic groups. Murkowski and her husband, Verne Martell, have appeared on local Telemundo programming. And her outreach goes further: After El Tango, she swaps her fleece for a black satin jacket to make appearances at a NAACP dinner and a silent auction for the Abused Women's Aid in Crisis (AWAIC), where she courted some moderate Democratic supporters. (Her husband, constantly at her side in a suit, sports taupe rubber Crocs.)

Murkowski's relationship with AWAIC is especially strong: She co-sponsored the Violence Against Women Act when it was reauthorized in 2005 and attached federal funding for AWAIC to last year’s appropriations bill—even though she ultimately voted against the final version. So she’s well-received at the auction. “Let’s just say I already voted, and you have to spell this candidate’s name,” says an Anchorage official who has previously donated to the Alaska Democratic Party. He says that, in addition to pulling in most independent and undeclared voters, who make up the majority of the state’s electorate, Murkowski will also attract Democrats who want “anyone but Miller” and don’t think McAdams can win.

Indeed, Murkowski’s practical, moderate messaging seems to be working among plenty of voters from all walks of life. When asked why they support her, many people bring up their personal experiences with Murkowski. One woman at the diversity coalition event discusses the senator’s work to secure visas for new Alaskans. Also at El Tango, Carol Ashlock, an independent voter who has printed 1,000 shirts that said “Too Legit to Quit,” talks about recycling projects that Murkowski has helped push through Congress. Then there’s Umulkher Samatar, a Somali immigrant who says that she thinks Murkowski’s Republican opponent cares too much about ideology and not enough about state services. “I’m not a political person. … Joe Miller, we know he’s very, very conservative. We know he’s not going to fight for minorities or immigrants. Health, education—he wants to cut all the federal funding for minority groups. Forget it,” Samatar says.

But messaging isn’t the only important part of Murkowski’s campaign. There’s the matter of her unusual name. For a write-in vote to count, the candidate’s name has to be spelled correctly. This will be a big challenge, especially for Alaskans who have learned English as a second language. Making it tougher still, at the urging of rightwing radio host and Miller supporter Dan Fagan, more than 150 Alaskans signed up as write-in candidates last week just to bury Murkowski’s name on the list that will be available at polling stations.

The campaign is hoping Murkowski gear will help minimize misspellings that could lead to tossed ballots. El Tango’s tables are covered with blue wristbands that show the candidate’s name and an oval, which must be colored in on voters’ ballots. The campaign says it has made 50,000 of them in total. They’ve also distributed 25,000 pens bearing the same information and the exhortation, “Fill it in. Write it in.” All this material is allowed in voting booths according to the state’s anti-electioneering laws, so long as it isn’t blatantly flashed around.

Some supporters have made their own gear. At a back table at El Tango, there are four women wearing black t-shirts that feature the letters “MUR,” a cow with the letter “K” on its hide, and a pair of skis. And the candidate doesn’t pass up a chance to remind people to get their letters correct: She wraps up her speech at the restaurant by asking if her name is really that hard to spell. In unison, her supporters shout, “M-U-R-K-O-W-S-K-I.”

Whether Murkowski’s efforts to promote a moderate message—and her unusual name—will succeed isn’t clear. Dave Dittman, an Alaska pollster, has her in the lead with 37 percent of the vote; Miller is at 27 percent, McAdams at 23). Public Policy Polling, however, has Miller ahead with 37 percent, and Murkowski tied with McAdams at 30 percent. Miller has been the subject of steady bad press, and even the National Republican Senatorial Committee has expressed concern about his chances. But his dedicated conservative base might be large enough to take the race. Meanwhile, McAdams’s numbers have risen in the past month, and Bill Clinton is now making robocalls on his behalf.

Murkowski’s challenge until the polls close on Tuesday remains navigating the space between her two opponents. She’s banking on presenting herself as more moderate than Miller, but more well-known and connected than McAdams. And she’s hoping to attract voters like Selita Helms, who attended the NAACP dinner with Murkowski. (Although the senator has only a 57 percent voting record with the group, she won points when she strongly condemned the Tea Party Express after one of its leaders used racist language to disparage the NAACP.)

Helms, who puts on gospel productions in Anchorage, doesn’t know who she’ll vote for on Tuesday. But she’s sure it won’t be Miller. “He lies. We all have skeletons in our closets, but he just lies about it.” She thinks that Murkowski is a more moderate option—but, then again, she thinks the same of McAdams.

Murkowski has to hope that she’s put in enough effort for the Selita Helmses of Alaska to go her way on Tuesday. She’s certainly sparing no energy in trying to convince these voters who’ll make a last-minute decision that she’s the right choice, the practical choice, the effective choice. Toward the end of the NAACP dinner, the last leg of her long and varied Saturday campaign swing, Murkowski addresses the banquet hall. The speech sounds like an abridged version of the one she delivered to the diversity coalition. Instead of “unity,” though, the audience hears about “equity” and “parity.” Murkowski closes by saying, “I look forward to working with you for a long time.”

Alexandra Gutierrez is a reporter based in Aleutian Islands.