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.
What made the difference for Handel?
She shot up in the polls after Palin released a pro-Handel statement that read: "Though considered an underdog candidate (more power to her!), this pro-life, pro-Constitutionalist with a can-do attitude and a record of fighting for ethics in government is ready to serve in the Governor's Office."
In fact, Handel was more moderate than some of the other candidates, but the approval of the Alaskan was enough to sway Georgia Republicans like Carolyn Draper, a 67-year-old retiree who told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "It influences me. I am a very conservative person and I have very conservative values, and I think Sarah Palin does, too."
Draper is not alone.
"The Palin endorsement definitely helped," Brad Coker, managing director of Mason-Dixon Polling & Research, which conducted the surveys on the race for Georgia newspapers, told the Journal-Constitution.
Handel's first-place finish positions her as the frontrunner in the Republican runoff fight (which is required when no candidate secures more than 50 percent in the first round), as Haley did in South Carolina. And if she wins it will be as a Palin protégé—with a website that urges voters to "Join Sarah and Support Karen" and television ads that reprise Palin's lipstick lingo from the 2008 Republican National Convention.
Are we seeing a pattern here? Tuesday’s voting in Georgia was telling. There's not much question that Handel has Palin to thank for at least some of her success; the last Mason-Dixon poll found that 30 percent of Republicans said they were more likely to back Handel because of the Palin endorsement. Only 2 percent suggested they were less likely to back Palin’s pick.
This is a pattern that extends beyond Georgia, and it has serious political observers, like Merle Black, the political science professor at Emory University and historian of Southern politics, suggesting that Palin's stamp of approval really is becoming a serious factor in GOP primaries.
"Palin has a very intense, loyal following among Republican primary voters," argues Black.
What is perhaps most significant about Palin is that she is not taking the easy route when it comes to endorsements. She is wading into contests where the supposedly "smart" move would be to stay clear. That's a mark either of a fool or a bold political player.
To be sure, there have been missteps. One of Palin's picks, Idaho Congressional contender Vaughn Ward, melted down spectacularly after he got caught plagiarizing speeches by Barack Obama (kind of a deal-breaker with a lot of Republicans) and imagining that Puerto Rico was a foreign country. And her endorsed Congressional candidates in special elections against Democrats have been notably unsuccessful: New York Conservative Doug Hoffman in a traditionally Republican seat last fall and Republican Tim Burns lost a Pennsylvania race where GOP aides thought they would be competitive.
Palin has also stirred some resentment by backing establishment candidates such as former Iowa Governor Terry Branstad, whose comeback bid received a boost from the Alaskan prior to a June primary in which he beat more rigidly conservative contenders. The same thing happened in California, where her endorsement of millionaire Republican US Senate candidate Fiorina upset Tea Party activists who were backing a more consistent conservative, state Senator Chuck DeVore.
But when the votes were counted, Palin's candidate had won the biggest primary in the biggest state. And, as Karl Rove says, it was Palin who "helped give conservative credentials to Fiorina"
What this adds up to is significant. If Branstad wins in Iowa, Palin will have a friendly governor in the first caucus state of the 2012 Republican presidential race. And if Fiorina wins, she will have an important ally in the state that will send the largest delegation to the party’s convention.
If she brings a solid base out of the South—with help from the likes of Haley in South Carolina and Handel in Georgia—it will be a lot harder to write Palin off.
After Palin’s political crack-up in 2008, and as someone who has reported on her ethically challenged tenure as Alaska’s governor, I was (like many Republicans) skeptical about her ability to master the intricacies of Republican primary politics on the national level—an essential first step in a presidential bid. But Handel's finish on Tuesday, in combination with the other results she has contributed to, argue for a rethink.
The safer bet until recently was that Palin would opt out of the 2012 race, in order to keep making money and, perhaps, to position herself for a future run. But, like Ronald Reagan heading into the 1976 and 1980 Republican presidential primaries, she is beginning to establish a network of connections—and evidence of political savvy and influence—that make it harder and harder to dismiss her as a real prospect.
Juxtaposed against the gang-that-couldn’t-shoot-straight nature of the rest of the Republican 2012 pack, Palin is emerging as her party’s most potent prospect. A favorable result from Georgia will merely add to the argument that it is time to accept that Palin is becoming the definitional player in the GOP—much as another conservative outrider, and former governor, named Reagan was in the late 1970s.