Slowly but surely, and admittedly without much competition, Sarah Palin is emerging as the most serious and effective player in the Republican Party.
To Palin’s proponents that may inspire a "Well, duh?" response.
To the great mass of Americans who, if polls are to be believed, remain doubtful with regard to the former mayor of Wasilla, however, the response will be more along the lines of: "Seriously?"
I understand that dubiousness. I really do.
I covered Palin’s bumbling attempt at a vice presidential campaign that became fodder for international parody. I covered the surreal annoucement that where she tried to explain that, because she was "not a quitter," she was quitting mid-term as governor of Alaska. I reviewed a Palin autobiography that should have been cross-marketed in the spirits aisle as "a fine whine."
I know that reasonable people—including a lot of Republicans—continue to dismiss her as little more than millionaire dilettante wearing expensive fishing gear.
But Palin’s endorsements in Republican primaries—her most significant political initiative since resigning her post in Alaska last year—have been more adventurous and more successful than her critics (and some of her allies) choose to imagine.
Palin’s picks are eclectic, some Tea Partisans and neo-libertarians (think Kentucky Senate candidate Rand Paul), some relatively mainstream conservatives (think California Senate candidate Carly Fiorina) running against Tea Party allies. Some have been predictable frontrunners, but others are back-of-the-pack outsiders. What has been most distinctive about her endorsements is a penchant for advancing the prospects of conservative women whose candidacies are changing the "good-old-boy" face of the party, particularly in the South.
Much has been made of the Alaskan’s early and steady backing of South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley, who faced opposition from significant elements within the party establishment and (as the state’s June primary approached) a steady stream of personal abuse from old-school Republicans. Haley was always a solid contender. But even after she took her hits she coasted to easy primary and runoff wins with Palin at her side.
On Tuesday, in an even bigger test, she had an even bigger impact.
Palin’s late-in-the-game endorsement of former Georgia Secretary of State Karen Handel shook up that state’s crowded GOP primary for governor. Here’s evidence of Palin Power: in early July polling, Handel was trailing far behind the race’s frontrunner, state Insurance commissioner John Oxendine, and was struggling for second-place position with another runner, former Congressman Nathan Deal.
When the votes were counted Tuesday night, however, Handel was a big winner—finishing in first when a substantial lead over Deal, who she is expected to face in an August 10 runoff. The frontrunner of two weeks ago, Oxendine, was training far behind.