No Alaskan candidate for statewide office has won more than 27 percent in a write-in campaign; Senator Ernest Gruening’s model for potential Murkowski write-in candidacy netted just 17 percent in 1968

Republican Lisa Murkowski’s odds to retain her U.S. Senate seat from Alaska past January 2011 just got a little more grim on Monday, as the state’s Libertarian Party voted unanimously not to allow the two-term Senator to run on its ballot line should she lose the GOP primary to upstart candidate Joe Miller.

Miller is currently leading Murkowski by less than 1,700 votes with several thousand absentee ballots yet to be counted.

But although a Republican primary loss ended the long political career of her father Frank Murkowski in his 2006 bid for a second term as governor, there is chatter Senator Murkowski might consider a write-in candidacy this November to win a third term in D.C.

The problem for Murkowski is not simply that only one U.S. Senator in history has been elected via a write-in campaign (Strom Thurmond won 63.1 percent of the vote in South Carolina’s 1954 Senate race).

The problem is that Alaska politicians have already attempted this feat for statewide offices several times over the past 50 years without success.

A Smart Politics analysis of data from the Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives and State of Alaska Division of Elections finds there have been eight general election write-in campaigns for statewide office in Alaska over the past 26 election cycles dating back to 1958.

Two of these campaigns were for U.S. Senate seats.

The first occurred in 1958, when the Last Frontier State elected its inaugural pair of U.S. Senators. During the election for its Class II seat, Keith Capper received 599 write-in votes (1.2 percent) to place third out of three candidates in a race won by Democrat Bob Bartlett.

The other case involves Alaska’s other inaugural Senator, Democrat Ernest Gruening, who was formerly a Territorial Governor of Alaska from 1939 to 1953.

Gruening, a longtime opponent of the Vietnam War who was one of two Senators to vote against the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution in 1964, was reelected in 1962 with 58 percent of the vote, but failed to receive his party’s nomination in 1968.

Gruening won 47.1 percent of the Democratic primary vote held that August, losing to Alaska’s Speaker of the House Mike Gravel by 5.8 points.

Senator Gruening did not exit quietly, however, and launched a write-in campaign that netted him 14,118 votes on Election Day, winning 17.4 percent of the vote for third place out of three candidates, with Gravel prevailing.

It has now been 42 years since Gruening’s failed write-in candidacy – the last such attempt for a U.S. Senate seat in Alaska.

Senator Murkowski is the current holder of Gruening’s old Class III Senate seat.

But in the meantime there have also been six gubernatorial write-in candidacies in Alaska, beginning with that of a former Governor, Wally Hickel, in 1978.

Nearly 10 years after he resigned as Alaska’s second governor to become Richard Nixon’s Secretary of the Interior, Hickel launched a write-in campaign for his old job in 1978.

Hickel had lost the GOP primary that August by a mere 98 votes to his political rival, Jay Hammond. (Hickel had also previously lost the 1974 Republican primary to Hammond, but by a much wider margin of 7,874 votes).

In the 1978 general election, Hickel was able to notch a state record that still stands today, winning 26.4 percent of the vote as a write-in candidate (33,555 votes). Hickel placed second out of five candidates, 12.6 points behind Hammond.

Eight years later, in 1986, Hickel lost his third GOP gubernatorial primary, this time to Arliss Sturgulewski by 2,007 votes.

Hickel went on to receive 4,958 write-in votes (2.8 percent) in that November’s general election won by Democrat Steve Cowper. Hickel’s tally was good for fourth place out of six candidates, including Ed Hoch, another write-in candidate who received just 107 votes for sixth place (0.1 percent).

The last election cycle with write-in candidacies for a statewide office in Alaska took place during the 1998 gubernatorial race.

Republican State Senator Robin Taylor lost that year’s GOP primary by 7,391 votes to nominee John Lindauer.

However, the Alaska Republican Party withdrew support from Lindauer just a few weeks before the general election after a dust-up involving the source of Lindauer’s campaign funding. The GOP then backed Taylor as a write-in candidate.

Taylor did win 40,209 write-in votes – the most in state history – but his 18.3 percent showing was far behind that of one-term Democratic incumbent, Tony Knowles, who won with 51.3 percent of the vote.

Taylor came in second place among eight candidates, including write-in candidates Wayne Ross (801 votes, 0.4 percent, 7th place), who had come in a close third in the GOP primary, and Nick Begich, Jr. (579 votes, 0.3 percent, 8th place).

Of course, Senator Murkowski will not need to be in a position to make history if she can make up enough ground during the counting of absentee ballots in the coming days.

Write-In Candidacies in Alaskan Statewide General Elections, 1958-2008

Keith Capper
US Senate
3 of 3
Ernest Gruening
US Senate
3 of 3
Wally Hickel
2 of 5
Wally Hickel
4 of 6
Ed Hoch
6 of 6
Robin Taylor
2 of 8
Wayne Ross
7 of 8
Nick Begich, Jr.
8 of 8

Sources: Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives; State of Alaska Division of Elections. Table compiled by Smart Politics.

Follow Smart Politics on Twitter.


  1. gwjd on September 9, 2010 at 12:46 am

    Good post.

    It’s worth noting that not only did the write-in candidates lose, but they also failed to bring about the defeat of the candidate who’d beaten them in the primary. In 1968, Gravel won despite Gruening’s write-in candidacy; in 1978, Hammond won despite Hickel’s write-in candidacy.

    In 1986, Sturgelewski would have lost in November even had she received all of Hickel’s votes, as she finished more than 8,000 votes behind Steve Cowper.

    Finally, in 1998, Knowles won with a majority; hence, Taylor and Ross can’t claim credit for defeating Lindauer by splitting the vote.

    Thus, even if Murkowski’s goal is only to defeat Miller, rather than to win, history suggests that she’s kidding herself.

  2. dwm on September 12, 2010 at 6:37 pm

    52% of Alaska voters are registered independent (undeclared and non-partisan). Murkowski is extremely popular among independents that do not tend to vote in primaries because they are “party” popularity contests. Consider that Dems make up 15% of registerd voters in Alaska and Reps make up a mere 26%.

    Also consider that Miller is “far” right and McAdams is considered “left”. Murkowski can successfully corner the market with the majority of voters in Alaska that tend to vote for the best person regardless of party affiliation.

    Strom Thurmond won a Senate Write in election in 1954. The post is historically correct, but neglects to mention that all polls indicate the Murkowski has higher favorable ratings among Alaska voters than either the democratic or republican nominee.

  3. Richard Winger on September 19, 2010 at 10:26 pm

    There have been 2 winners in U.S. history to the U.S. Senate in general elections. Besides Strom Thurmond in 1954, there was William F. Knowland in California’s special US Senate in November 1946, for the two month term.

  4. @FoxieNews on November 4, 2010 at 11:24 pm

    Excellent article!! If you look at my latest blog, you’ll see that the vote count is a lot closer than most people think. You’d be surprised to know how many people were duped (by libs) into writing Joe Miller on the ballot and filling in the oval…. those votes won’t count for Joe, or Lisa, they’ll be tossed… for more check out my blog and tell me what you think..

Leave a Comment