Uh oh: Murkowski gains on Miller in early counting of absentee ballots; Update: Murkowski overperforming?

Not that big a deal — I think.

Murkowski picked up 343 votes in early returns Tuesday. Tea Party Express favorite Miller had 48,051 votes to Murkowski’s 46,726. Miller had maintained a lead of 1,668 votes heading into Tuesday’s count, which narrowed to 1,325.

The Elections Division listed 25,510 absentee, questioned or early ballots as of Monday. Counting started Tuesday morning in Anchorage and Wasilla and was scheduled for Tuesday afternoon in Fairbanks and Juneau.

Why isn’t it a big deal that she just cut his lead by roughly 20 percent? Because Anchorage is a Murkowski district. The big Miller districts have yet to be counted. Hotline:

[Projections show that] Murkowski would net more votes, about 114, in and around Anchorage, where her base is strong. She won 12 of 15 legislative districts wholly or partly contained within the city, some with as much as 60%.

But not only are those small amounts insufficient to help Murkowski pull out a win, they’re also dwarfed by the absentee ballot crop Miller is likely to reap in the Mat-Su Valley, where ex-AK Gov. Sarah Palin’s (R) political base lives.

Miller won the area by wide margins, and if ballots break today like they did last week, he would net an additional 489 votes over Murkowski. Murkowski lost all 4 legislative districts in the Mat-Su Valley by more than 20 points, giving Miller a chance to virtually lock up the election by increasing his lead.

If she’s picked up 343 votes from Anchorage when Hotline expected her to net just 114, she has cause for some hope — especially since, per ABC, she’s now won the absentee battle in three districts that she lost on election night. This was the big fear all along, that Miller surged so late in the race that absentee ballots sent in early would break heavily for Murkowski across the state. In which case, maybe this is a big deal after all.

Looks like another long night at the ol’ bloggy homestead. Stand by for updates as more returns come in. (Or follow along with rolling updates at the Anchorage Daily News.) While we wait, here’s Megyn Kelly desperately trying to start another food fight between Murkowski and Miller, with Miller wisely resisting taking the bait. Remember, party unity will be key to preserving Miller’s natural advantage in the general election; the more corrosive things get between him and Murky, the better the Democrats’ chances at an upset are. Increase the peace.

Update: Just as I published the post, the ADN updated with new numbers. The ballots from Miller’s stronghold in the Mat-Su Valley are now in and he’s increased his lead a bit — but not by as much as Hotline projected. On election day, he crushed Murkowski 62/38 in those districts. On the absentees and questioned ballots, he won … 52/48. He’s added a net 135 votes to lead by 1,460 now but it looks like Murkowski’s going to keep chipping away. More updates coming…

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