DES MOINES, IOWA | It seemed the GOP civil war could not get any more nasty, but somehow on Friday night it did.
Sen. Lisa Murkowski turned an already fractious midterm election cycle on its ear, defying her own party to launch a write-in campaign for her Senate seat after losing to Tea Party Republican Joe Miller in the primary.
Murkowski launched her insider-turned-outsider challenge at a raucous rally with supporters, sparking a near uproar with a furious assault on former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, who had dismissed the write-in effort a mere hour before here in Iowa.
Ironically, on the night Palin took her first steps toward a possible run for president in 2012, she received the most direct challenge to her growing political clout from within the party, following a week where she notched another victory in Delaware.
In a rare exchange with reporters following her speech to 1,500 Republican activists, Palin had called Murkowski’s decision to run as a write-in “futile.”
Murkowski threw the criticism back at Palin, who defeated Murkowski’s father, Frank Murkowski, in 2006, but who resigned in 2009 with 17 months left in her term.
“There’s a lot of naysayers … They tell me that this can’t be done, that this is a ‘futile effort’,” Murkowski said. “Well perhaps it’s time they met one Republican woman who won’t quit on Alaska.”
Murkowski also showed an eagerness to fight hand to hand with Miller over the next six weeks.
“We cannot accept the extremist views of Joe Miller,” she said, admitting that she did not “swing back” when under attack in the primary, but promising to do so with relish now.
“The gloves are off,” she said.
The response from the Republican Party leadership – which has already said they were backing Miller – was decidedly disappointed.
“Voters spoke when they nominated Joe Miller and I am deeply disappointed in Sen Murkowski’s decision to ignore that message,” said Sen. John Cornyn, Texas Republican and chairman of the Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee. “The NRSC stands firmly behind Joe Miller’s nomination and we’ll ensure he has all the resources he needs to win this November.”
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican who once counted Murkowski as one of his top lieutenants, said she had resigned her leadership post within the caucus.
“Lisa has served her state and our party with distinction, but Republicans acknowledge the decision Alaskans made and join them in support of the Republican nominee, Joe Miller—the next Senator for Alaska,” McConnell said.