After allegations emerged on November 9 that Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore had assaulted a 14-year-old girl decades ago, Republicans began talking about an outside-the-box solution to the problem of a toxic nominee: a write-in campaign.
Two names floated to the top: Luther Strange, who lost to Moore in the GOP runoff, and Jeff Sessions, who held the seat before he became attorney general earlier this year. A wild card, Lee Busby, a retired Marine colonel and “lifelong Alabamian,” just declared his own write-in bid earlier this week.
But a write-in campaign is an incredible feat to pull off. Only one member of the US Senate has won as a write-in in the past 50 years: Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.
“You have to start with the premise that they’re extraordinarily difficult in general, and rare to be successful,” Edward Foley, the director of election law at Ohio State University’s Moritz College of Law, said of write-in campaigns. “The Murkowski example is not the norm — it’s for sure the exception. But it also proves it’s not impossible.”
CNN reports that Alabama’s secretary of state sent out guidance Wednesday on how to cast a write-in vote “due to a large number of requests.” But an examination of the Murkowski 2010 write-in campaign shows that an Alabama effort is probably futile. At best, write-in candidates would likely split the Republican vote. Queasy Alabama Republicans have few viable options on December 12. If they cannot stomach voting for Democrat Doug Jones, Roy Moore will be their senator.
How Murkowski won: name recognition, grassroots support, and a beatable opponent
In 2010, Murkowski handed out blue wristbands with yellow print that read, “Fill it in Write it in.” The campaign slogan doubled as instructions to Alaskan voters, all part of an ad campaign showing voters on how to complete their ballots and, most critically, correctly spell the senator’s three-syllable, somewhat complicated name.
That Murkowski had a shot at all was the result of a combination of factors — from her family background to an unusual grassroots coalition — that would be hard to replicate in Alabama in 2017.
Murkowski’s atypical campaign began with a shocking loss. In 2010, Tea Party favorite Joe Miller defeated incumbent Murkowski in the GOP primary. She lost by about 2,000 votes, though polls had her handily beating Miller, then a political newcomer.
Murkowski conceded. The National Republican Senatorial Committee threw its support behind Miller.
But some Alaskan voters and more mainstream Republicans weren’t ready to give up. Some thought Murkowski should run on the Libertarian ticket. Other supporters inundated Murkowski’s office with calls, a flood of Alaskans pleading and encouraging Murkowski to stage a write-in bid, someone close to the 2010 campaign told Vox.
“We were kind of treading new ground,” Karina Waller, another staffer who worked on the 2010 campaign, said of the decision to mount a write-in campaign. “We had been getting feedback that we shouldn’t attempt it because they’re not successful.”
Murkowski went ahead anyway, announcing her write-in campaign in September 2010 — just a few weeks after the primary and a little more than six weeks ahead of the November elections. Her supporters cheered, “Run, Lisa, run!”
Waller said the campaign immediately tried to channel grassroots energy into meaningful networks of supporters. “We had teams of people after the election, individuals contacting our office urging her to run, and so we started building coalitions around different groups,” she said. “We’d bring together members of the fishing industry, and young Alaskans, and Democrats for Lisa. People who said, ‘Let me help.’”
Murkowski also won support from a coalition of Alaska’s indigenous populations, which led outreach efforts in rural areas. Jeff Stein reported for Vox earlier this year that these populations tended to traditionally vote Democrat, but because Murkowski’s Republican foe, Miller, ran as an opponent of indigenous rights, these groups “strategically supported the less right-wing Republican.”
Beyond Murkowski’s grassroots support, she had a built-in constituency both as a sitting senator and as a member of a prominent family of Alaskan politicians. She became a US representative in 1998 and joined the US Senate in 2002 after her father, Frank Murkowski, appointed her to the seat he vacated when he stepped down to become the governor of Alaska. He had served as senator for nearly two decades.
So Alaskans recognized the name “Murkowski.” Whether voters knew how to spell it was a separate issue entirely. The campaign was unsure how much variation in spelling would be tolerated if the write-in results were challenged in court (which Miller did), so they had to get creative with their ads. Their messaging had to do more than just convince Alaskans to elect her — it had to train voters on the mechanics of selecting a write-in candidate: Fill in the bubble, write in her name, remember K, not C.
Murkowski also benefited from some of her opponent’s missteps. “There wasn’t anything like the allegations against Miller that there is against Moore,” Foley said, “but Miller did come with the baggage, if you will, that came with being a Tea Party candidate.”
Miller, an attorney from Fairbanks, had largely avoided intense media scrutiny during the primary. That changed with his nomination. He was caught up in an ethics scandal and had his private security handcuff a journalist who was trying to ask questions at a campaign event. Times have changed, but, as Foley points out, a write-in becomes much more plausible when new revelations or “late-breaking information” does damage to the “conventional” candidate — in this case, the person on the top of the party ticket.
What is — and isn’t — missing in Alabama
When it comes to Alabama, a write-in candidate would have a few things working in their favor. According to the Alabama secretary of state’s office, all write-ins are “counted in the event that the candidate is qualified to hold the office and not a fictional character.” The state’s “sore loser” laws also don’t apply to write-ins, meaning a candidate who lost a primary (for example, Luther Strange) could still run as a write-in, though not on an official party ticket.
And it appears voters in Alabama are into the idea. The Alabama secretary of state’s office issued instructions Wednesday on how to fill in a write-in ballot “due to a large number of requests.”
The Alabama secretary of state sends out guidance for how to cast a write-in vote less than two weeks before the election "due to a large number of requests." pic.twitter.com/FcKN8c2koj— Kaitlan Collins (@kaitlancollins) November 29, 2017
Write-ins candidacies also have an advantage in the age of social media, where, as Foley noted, word can spread fast and cheaply. This is Busby’s strategy, as he told the Washington Post.
But it might all be too late. The election is December 12, about two weeks away. People who worked on Murkowski’s 2010 campaign speculated that had a write-in candidate immediately jumped into the race after the Moore allegations broke, it would have been tough, but not altogether impossible.
“We got into gear relatively quickly,” Waller said of Murkowski’s campaign. “But it’s doable, I think, within a month or so.”
But even as national Republicans distanced themselves from Moore (and before the president spoke out in support), they never coalesced around a write-in candidate.
Sessions, like Murkowski, has the name recognition factor. He’s popular in Alabama and hasn’t had any trouble winning this Senate seat in the past — but he’s given no indication he’s interested in his old job.
Strange, the establishment’s original pick in Alabama, already lost to Moore. His public statements also make it seem as if he’s pretty reluctant to challenge Moore again, though Murkowski has reportedly encouraged him to go for it.
And reluctance to run is an obstacle in itself. Murkowski wasn’t enlisted in a desperate last-ditch effort. She wanted to run, and Alaskans, it seemed, agreed. Nobody except Busby — who likely lacks the campaign infrastructure and broader name recognition — seems all that into the idea.
Which brings up the second issue holding Republicans back in Alabama: the actual campaign. Write-ins seems like a protest vote at best, and a throwaway vote at worst. But Candice Nelson, the chair of the government department at American University, said after figuring out who the candidate is — if they figure it out — they have to “get the message out.”
Murkowski campaigned, hard. Strange and Sessions and Busby (who, to be fair, is trying) would need to get out and convince voters to write in their names. They’d also need to show voters how to do that, similar to the education element Murkowski incorporated into her outreach.
Murkowski’s campaign infrastructure remained mostly in place after the primary. This — along with that grassroots support — helped the campaign target its message. Nelson said any write-in campaign needs to figure out exactly which voters are up for grabs. In this case, Republicans likely to vote in a special election who have abandoned Moore or can be persuaded to do so. That has to be done quickly and accurately; otherwise, it’s wasted effort.
Republicans can’t hope that enough voters decide on their own that Sessions or Strange is their guy. It won’t work.