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How Lisa Murkowski (might have) lost

1. The stunning news that developed over night in Alaska -- with 98 percent of precincts reporting, attorney Joe Miller (R) leads Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R) 51 percent to 49 percent -- reveals the depth of anti-incumbent sentiment in the country, the power of former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (and the tea party movement) and the perils of prognostication in low turnout intraparty fights.

First, the numbers. With 429 of 438 precincts reporting, Miller stands at 45,909 votes while Murkowski has 43,949 votes. According to the Alaska Division of Elections, more than 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and fewer than half (7,600) had been returned as of Monday night.

Absentees won't start to be counted for another six days and there are clearly enough outstanding votes for Murkowski to stage a comeback. If she was to lose, however, Murkowski would be the third Senator to fall in a party re-nomination contest this year.

How did we get here?

Miller's candidacy drew considerable national attention when he first entered the race thanks to Palin who, along with her husband, Todd, threw the weight of her endorsement behind the little known attorney.

And, as we wrote on the Fix in June, Murkowski's record did present some openings for a candidate like Miller who was running to her ideological right and with the support of tea party activists. (She voted for the Troubled Asset Relief Program and is pro abortion rights -- to name two.)

Murkowski appeared largely unconcerned with Miller's challenge despite the Palin endorsement and the struggles other GOP incumbents had encountered in trying to defend their TARP vote.

She was urged by senior leadership at the National Republican Senatorial Committee to go negative on Miller in a meeting two months ago but rejected that advice, insisting that attack ads were not how politics were conducted in Alaska, according to a source familiar with the gathering.

By refusing to define Miller early on in the race, Murkowski gave away her biggest advantage: money. (On Aug. 4, Murkowski reported $1.86 million in her campaign warchest; Miller had just $84,000 in the bank at that time.)

As the votes were being counted, Miller gave full credit for his lead to Palin, the half-term governor of Alaska whose endorsement put him on the national political map. "I'm absolutely certain that was pivotal," he told the Anchorage Daily News. And, Murkowski, put the blame for her potential loss at the feet of the former governor, saying: "I think she's out for her own self-interest. I don't think she's out for Alaska's interest."

(Palin had an extremely good night on Tuesday as all five of her endorsed candidates in Florida, Arizona and Alaska appeared to win.)

The simple truth made apparent again last night (and this morning) in the Murkowski-Miller fight, is that primaries are a difficult thing to predict due to the outsized influence a relatively small group of energized supporters can have on a race.

Roughly 100,000 people are likely to have cast ballots when all is said and done in Alaska, a minuscule number of people where Miller's support from Palin -- and the broader tea party movement -- can have a far broader effect than in larger states like Illinois and Missouri where tea party challengers fizzled.

We'll keep a close eye on the developments in Alaska but the results remind us why we love politics so much: it's never predictable!

2. While the Murkowski upset is the biggest story coming out of last night's primaries, there were a slew of other interesting narratives -- both expected and unexpected.

On the "expected" side:

* Arizona Sen. John McCain walloped former Rep. J.D. Hayworth in the state's Republican primary. With nearly all votes counted, McCain led by 24 points -- a victory long expected after the incumbent destroyed his opponent's credibility as a conservative with a devastating ad portraying him as a "huckster".

* Florida Rep. Kendrick Meek sailed to the Democratic Senate nomination with a crushing win over billionaire Jeff Greene. Greene, who spent upwards of $20 million of his own money on the campaign, proved to be an uneven -- to be kind -- candidate who didn't wear well with Florida voters. Meek moves on to face former state House Speaker Marco Rubio, who easily dispatched a nuisance primary of his own, and Gov. Charlie Crist, who is running as an independent, in the fall.

* Ben Quayle's name identification edge and fundraising prowess -- both due, in some major part, to his being the son of former Vice President Dan Quayle -- paid off as he won a crowded and contested Republican primary fight in Arizona's 3rd district. Quayle weathered a series of tough stories regarding his involvement with a alternative website in the Scottsdale area and is a strong favorite to come to Congress given the Republican lean of the district.

On the unexpected side:

* Former health care CEO Rick Scott was seen as an underdog heading into primary day in the Florida Republican governor's primary but managed to eke out a victory over state Attorney General Bill McCollum. Scott spent heavily -- $50 million or more -- of his own money but, as recently as earlier this week, it appeared to be for naught as polling suggested McCollum would win the race. Scott's victory is rightly seen as a rebuke to the Florida political establishment who had lined up lockstep behind McCollum. Democrats -- as expected -- nominated state CFO Alex Sink as their nominee.

* Florida Rep. Allen Boyd narrowly bested state Sen. Al Lawson in the Democratic primary for his north Florida seat. Boyd spent upwards of $2 million on the race and had been on television for months -- although his team painted the spending and the ads as designed to position him for a general election race against funeral home director Steve Southerland. Boyd allies insisted that the closeness of the primary was no surprise -- Lawson is African American and the district has a significant black population -- and that it had little repercussion for the fall campaign. Republicans disagreed, insisting the closeness of the race indicated Boyd's vulnerability.

* In Arizona, Iraq war veteran Jesse Kelly defeated establishment pick and former state Sen. Jonathan Paton in the 8th district Republican primary and moves on to face Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in the fall. Democrats believe the Kelly victory greatly strengthens Giffords' hand and her campaign went on television today with an ad this morning accusing Kelly of wanting to get rid of Social Security.

3. Crossroads GPS, a conservative 501(c)4 group with ties to former Bush White House senior adviser Karl Rove and former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, is up with a new TV ad that slams Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.) for supporting President Obama's "big government health care scheme."

"Higher taxes and premiums, fewer jobs, Medicare cuts: the Sestak-Obama plan costs us too much," the narrator says.

Sestak, who has held the 7th district since 2006, is taking on former Rep. Pat Toomey (R) for the seat of Sen. Arlen Specter (D). Sestak beat the party switching Specter in a primary earlier this year.

The ad comes as Crossroads GPS, which has a brother 527 arm known as American Crossroads, steps up its efforts in this year's campaigns. It announced last week that it was launching nearly $1 million worth of ads in the Colorado and Ohio Senate races and spending $2 million in the Nevada and Missouri Senate races.

All told, the two groups had raised more than $17 million as of mid-August.

The two parties are deeply divided about the direction of the Sestak-Toomey race. While Pennsylvania's electorate leans Democratic, Obama's approval rating has dipped below 50 percent in the economically struggling state - leaving Sestak vulnerable to attack ads such as the Crossroads spot that links him to national Democrats.

4. Both Democrats running for Hawaii's open governor's mansion would begin the general election with a double-digit lead over Lt. Gov. Duke Aiona (R), according to a new independent poll.

The Hawaii Poll, conducted for the Honolulu Star-Advertiser by Ward Research, shows Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D) leading Aiona 53 percent to 41 percent while former Honolulu Mayor Mufi Hannemann's lead over Aiona is even bigger at 54 percent to 37 percent.

Previously released numbers from the poll show the Democratic primary is a battle, with Abercrombie leading Hannemann 49 percent to 44 percent.

Republicans are hoping that race gets so nasty over the next month that it opens the door for Aiona to keep the seat being vacated by term-limited Gov. Linda Lingle (R).

The Republican Governors Association has already run advertising on Aiona's behalf and has circulated its own polling, which shows the race a statistical tie.

Aiona's campaign suggested the sample in the poll was faulty, pointing out that 425 of the 604 likely voters in the poll said they would vote in the Democratic primary.

5. Still trying to sort through all the results from last night's primary bonanza? We can help.

We'll be live chatting at 11 a.m. this morning to tell you the who, what, when, where and why of last night's primaries. You can submit questions in advance or just follow along in real time.

Come one, come all!

By Chris Cillizza  | August 25, 2010; 8:10 AM ET
Categories:  Morning Fix  
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Next: Winners and losers: The August 24 primary edition

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