EDITOR’S NOTE: Each week we cross-post Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column from the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full archive of Katrina’s Post columns here.
Back in the halcyon days of 2010, I wrote my first Washington Post column about a hockey mom from Alaska who seemed, at the time, to have a bright future ahead of her in conservative politics.
When Sarah Palin appeared on the national scene in 2008, she represented a then-novel kind of Republican: faux populist and made for reality TV. She has not held office since 2009, but Palin paved the way for the party as we know it today. That is why her second loss in a row to Democrat Mary Peltola in Alaska’s congressional election is a promising sign—for Alaska and for the United States.
Today’s Republican Party is full of would-be Palins—fame-chasing self-dealers for whom truth-telling is optional and apologizing an afterthought. They exist at every level of the party, from election deniers attempting to seize control at the state level to the Emmy-losing former reality show host now seeking reentry into the White House.
On the precipice of yet another election cycle riddled with reactionaries, progressives would do well to emulate the 2022 Democratic strategies that caused a once-rising star of the conservative right to fall flat.
Palin came to prominence in 2008 as the surprise Republican vice-presidential nominee—an evangelical Hail Mary pass from the foundering campaign of John McCain. McCain lost, but Palin leveraged her notoriety to become a leading voice in the tea party movement of 2010, was discussed as a possible contender for president in 2012 and raised eyebrows with an early endorsement of Donald Trump in 2016.
Palin did not attempt a political comeback herself until this year, when she ran to replace the late GOP Representative Don Young as Alaska’s sole representative in Congress. She had near-universal name recognition in a solid-red state, running for an open seat. And she had the endorsement of Trump—the new ultraconservative standard-bearer—who won the state in 2020 by more than 10 points.
By any measure, she should have been a shoo-in. So how did she lose?
For one thing, she seemed to be in politics only for herself. She resigned as governor before the end of her first term—just months after her vice-presidential run—eager to make a quick buck. Within a year, she had signed a million-dollar-a-year contract with Fox News and was hosting Sarah Palin’s Alaska on TLC (the DVD box set is available on Amazon starting at $2.76). She cashed in her political capital to catapult herself to celebrity, and Alaska voters never forgot. By the time she kicked off her race for Congress, she had just a 37 percent favorable rating in her home state.
Still, Alaska remains a conservative stronghold. On the same night Palin lost, Republican Governor Mike Dunleavy prevailed, more than doubling the vote of his Democratic opponent. Palin’s unpopularity alone was not enough to cost her the race. There had to be a viable alternative, another candidate who could exploit her weaknesses.
Enter Mary Peltola, the Democratic candidate who is pro-choice, pro-labor and “pro-fish.” An outspoken voice on climate change and corporate misuse of power, she ran a unifying, civil, positive campaign—and demonstrated that populist policy positions can appeal to moderate and conservative voters without selling out workers or marginalized groups.
Peltola, the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, won her seat in a special election this summer. In doing so, she went from a long shot in August to a popular incumbent in November—and was reelected to a full term (a trajectory Democratic Senator Raphael G. Warnock is hoping to reproduce in Georgia on Tuesday).
Crucially, her campaign coincided with the implementation of a more democratic electoral system in Alaska: ranked-choice voting. Under this system, voters are asked to rank multiple candidates rather than choosing just one—incentivizing unlikely alliances to form and a consensus candidate to emerge.
Peltola certainly was that. Senator Lisa Murkowski (R) crossed party lines to endorse her (though she joked that she would “get in so much trouble” for it). Even Palin could not bring herself to criticize her opponent. “I love her dearly,” she said of Peltola two weeks before the election. “I’m as proud of her as all of you are.”
There are lessons progressives can take from Peltola. Candidates with fatal flaws can be defeated, even in unfriendly political territory. The best way to seize that opportunity is through authentic populism—and it doesn’t hurt if your state has implemented ranked-choice voting.
In 2020, Palin appeared on The Masked Singer in a cotton candy–colored bear costume, rapping “Baby Got Back.” This year, Alaskans affirmed that those sorts of shows are exactly where Sarah Palin belongs, while Mary Peltola belongs in Congress.