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The tortured history of write-in candidates

By Aaron Blake

Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski's new campaign slogan is "Let's Make History," and if she were to win her write-in campaign in November, she would be doing just that.

No member of Congress has won a seat via a write-in campaign since 1982, and only one senator has been elected without his name appearing on the ballot.

The latter honor belongs to the longest-serving senator in history, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.). When the Democratic state executive committee in 1954 replaced their deceased Senate nominee with state Sen. Edgar Brown, Thurmond (who was then a Democrat and a former governor) ran against Brown as a write-in and, with the backing of then-Gov. James Byrnes (D), beat Brown handily, 63 percent to 37 percent.

Examples closer to home aren't as friendly for Murkowski. In fact, Alaska, despite its short history as a state, has a long history of well-known write-ins running for high office -- and failing.

The most analogous situation would be former Sen. Ernest Gruening's (D-Alaska) 1968 write-in campaign for re-election. Much like Murkowski, the incumbent lost his party's nomination (to none other rock-throwing 2008 presidential candidate Mike Gravel!) and chose to fight for reelection as a write-in.

Gruening, who was also a former territorial governor of Alaska, didn't even come close. He went on to win just 17 percent and finish third against Gravel and a Republican in the general election.

Just 10 years later, former Alaska Gov. Wally Hickel lost the GOP primary for his old job. He mounted a write-in campaign and won just 26 percent of the vote.

In both cases (summarized here by the great people at Smart Politics), the write-in candidates were well-known and performed well in the primaries, losing narrowly to their party's nominees, just as Murkowski did. Nonetheless, mounting a write-in campaign proved a pretty fruitless venture, and the voters stuck with the major-party nominees.

Murkowski has repeatedly acknowledged this reality, both before and after deciding to press on with the campaign. Running a write-in campaign is so difficult because, well, you are asking voters to literally write your name in -- an extra step that many voters don't want to take at the ballot box.

Beyond that, write-in candidates are often running without a party organization behind them to help raise money and turn out voters.

Indeed, a write-in hasn't won any congressional race in nearly three decades, since 1982, when Rep. Ron Packard (R-Calif.) won his seat running as an independent write-in, taking 37 percent of the vote.

Prior to that, Rep. Joe Skeen (R-N.M.) won in 1980, Rep. Dale Alford (D-Ark.) won in 1958 and Rep. Charles Curry Jr. (R-Calif.) won in 1930.

Four years ago, former Rep. Shelley Sekula Gibbs (R-Texas) attempted to join that elite club when she was forced to run as a write-in after Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) resigned from Congress too late to replace him on the ballot. Sekula Gibbs lost to former Rep. Nick Lampson (D) 52 percent to 42 percent (though she won the remaining two months of DeLay's term in a concurrent special election, in which her name appeared on that ballot).

More recently, a few current congressmen won their primaries using write-in bids.

* Rep. Charlie Wilson (D-Ohio) needed to win nomination as a write-in in 2006 after his campaign failed to get 50 valid signatures to make the primary ballot. (The jingle his campaign created to encourage a write-in candidacy ranks among the Fix's favorite political songs ever.) He went on to win an open seat.

* Reps. Dave Loebsack (D-Iowa) and Jerry McNerney (D-Calif.) won their party's nominations as write-ins in 2006 and 2004, respectively. Neither faced any primary opponent on the ballot, so Loebsack won with 501 write-in votes, and McNerney won with 1,683. Loebsack won the general election; McNerney lost in 2004 but went on to win in 2006.

Historically, victories by write-in candidates often comes because of a lack of a viable alternative. There was no Republican on the ballot in Thurmond's case, and Sekula Gibbs faced only a Democrat on the ballot. When there were two viable options, as with Gruening and Hickel, the write-in candidate gets squeezed out.

If Murkowski is going to win, she will need plenty of support from Democrats in the state and will probably need Democrat Scott McAdams's campaign -- or Republican Joe Miller's -- to flop badly.

Neither scenario is impossible but the long list of losing write-in candidates suggests the next six weeks will be very tough for Murkowski.

By Aaron Blake  | September 21, 2010; 3:45 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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