Senator Lisa Murkowski is working the Kaladi Brothers coffee shop in downtown Anchorage, Alaska, like any glad-handing candidate. She stops at most tables, introduces herself "Hi! I'm Lisa" and poses for photos with young supporters. And in the span of 30 minutes, six people go up to her to express their support.
"You certainly have an uphill battle, but I'm rooting for you," says Jess Parks, 33, an environmental scientist from Juneau, in Anchorage for the day for work.
"I think we can pull this thing off," Murkowski replies. "But I need your help."
"You have it," pledges Parks, who takes a sticker from a Murkowski aide and promises to take friends to the opening of Murkowski's new campaign office the next day in Juneau.
This is the kind of outpouring of support, Murkowski says, that prompted her to launch a write-in bid to retain her Senate seat after losing the Republican primary last month to Tea Party darling Joe Miller. For a GOP outcast, she has built an impressive machine in a matter of a few days: she has retained the endorsements of the firefighters and police unions and the National Education Association, the largest union in the state; and she has the full support of the tribal leaders, an important constituency in Alaska that helped former Senator Ted Stevens win most of his campaigns.
But not everyone Murkowski encounters is on her side. Mike Doner, 50, a commercial fisherman from Palmer, is a little icy when Murkowski approaches his table. Doner voted for Murkowski in 2004 but is now a Miller supporter. "I'm not concerned that she beats Joe Miller and takes the seat, my bigger concern is that she'll help a Democrat take that seat," he says. "I think she could be a spoiler and that possibility makes me disappointed."
Observers, though, say Murkowski is likely to take just as many voters from Sitka Mayor Scott McAdams, the Democrat in the race, as she would from Miller. In fact, Murkowski's betting on it. In an interview with TIME, she talked about the accusations of being a spoiler, her Senate colleagues' decision not to strip her of her ranking membership of the Natural Resources Committee, why McAdams should be afraid and how she'll stay a Republican if elected.
Were you surprised that your colleagues didn't remove your ranking membership from the Natural Resources Committee?
I'm not surprised. This was an affirmation of the relationship that I've built over the past eight years with the people that I work with. As difficult as the politics are, as awkward as the situation is, I had really believed that my friends would recognize that what I'm doing is for my state. I think they appreciate that and that they also recognize, "You know what? Lisa might be a risk taker, but she's got a real shot at coming back here, and it only makes good sense that we would not want to be so punitive that she would be discouraged by the actions of her colleagues."
Randy Ruedrich, the chairman of the Alaska Republican Party, has said you could be more of a danger to McAdams than Miller. True?
I happen to agree with Randy. If this is not a Republican state, it's certainly more of a conservative one. Though we have [Democratic] Senator Mark Begich, it's certainly not a Democratic state. Scott McAdams is a nice guy, but I don't know that most Alaskans believe that he's electable. And so if you're given a choice between a Democrat that you consider not electable in a relatively conservative state, you look at what the other two options are. I think Alaskans are looking at me as one who has clearly demonstrated that I can represent all Alaskans and I think the real question is whether Miller and the views that he represents could really represent all Alaskans.
If you win, would you consider caucusing with the Democrats?
No. I'm a Republican. I'm running as a write-in Republican candidate. So, I'm not my party's nominee. Does that give me a little more flexibility and independence? Perhaps, yes. Keep in mind, our demographics of our state, how it breaks down in terms of political affiliation: over half the people in this state chose not to align themselves with any party at all. So, in order for me to represent them, I think I have to have that approach that I have demonstrated over the years: that you're not going to find me 100% in alignment with the party position but I'm 100% aligned with Alaska's position.