The return of Sarah Palin

CNN
Friday, October 25, 2013 - 9:48am

The Republican establishment can't stand her. The media mocks her. But Sarah Palin isn't going anywhere.

Far from it.

After laying low for much of this year, Palin is gingerly stepping back into the public arena with a national book tour, a trip to the always-important political state of Iowa, and an eye on making yet another series of splashy endorsements in a variety of competitive Republican primaries.

Five years after rocketing from Alaska obscurity to worldwide fame, Palin wants to be a political player in 2014.

Which begs the question: Does she still matter?

"She is the most important endorsement in Republican politics today, by far," said Sal Russo, a Republican consultant who co-founded the Tea Party Express, a group that has booked Palin to speak at numerous public events dating back to the 2010 midterm cycle. "She can move the needle in a primary more than anyone else can."

Her detractors see things differently.

After flirting with a presidential bid and stirring up a tidal wave of media attention in the run-up to the 2012 Iowa caucuses, with a slew of punchy speeches and a madcap bus tour of historical sites along the East Coast, Palin eventually decided to pass on a shot at the White House.

When her presidential potential evaporated, a number of Republicans said, so did her relevance.

"I don't think that she has the juice that she had four years ago, I really don't," said Katon Dawson, a GOP fundraiser in South Carolina who runs a Super PAC backing Sen. Lindsey Graham, one of the Senate's batch of endangered old guard Republicans up for re-election in 2014. "She does have a following and when she speaks, people listen. I just don't know if that voice is as loud or as important as it used to be."

Dawson said he gives Palin "credit for monetizing her run for vice president," a backhanded compliment that appropriately sums up the feelings of eye-rolling GOP professionals everywhere, who wish she would disappear back into the frigid wilderness of the Last Frontier.

Palin's standing as a serious political figure, already tenuous, has seemingly been in decline ever since she decided not to run for president and saw conservatives sidelined as Mitt Romney captured the Republican nomination, only to lose to President Barack Obama.

Pundit or political player?

In reporting her upcoming speech to the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition on November 9, The Des Moines Register this month described her on first reference as "conservative pundit Sarah Palin," rather than the honorifics usually bestowed on her, "former vice presidential candidate" and "former Alaska governor."

Contributions to her political action committee, Sarah PAC, tapered off after she passed on a presidential bid. Earlier this year, she publicly parted ways with Fox News, where she had been employed as a paid analyst since 2010 (she re-joined the network five months later).

Palin hasn't been completely absent from politics in 2013. She issued a range of political pronouncements on her Facebook page, attacking President Barack Obama and congressional Democrats, taking particular umbrage at their efforts to scale back gun rights. And in March, she delivered one of the more well-received speeches at the annual Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington.

But she has devoted much of her energies this year to a Christmas-themed book, "Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas," that will release in November and launch her on a multicity book tour through states like Florida, Virginia, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Texas and Arizona (the promotional tour also offers her a loophole to appear on other television networks).

It was the 16-day partial government shutdown, a fight sparked by Republican-led efforts to dismantle Obama's Affordable Care Act, that energized Palin once again, those around her say.

She has been impressed, one Palin aide said, by Texas Sen. Ted Cruz and Utah Sen. Mike Lee, two tea party stalwarts who helped orchestrate the defund-Obamacare movement that led to the shutdown and set off a new round of establishment-versus-grassroots warfare inside the Republican Party.

"There is a need to step up now," said one Palin aide who declined to go on the record like most people around her usually do. "She steps up when she sees there is a need. She sees the fire that Ted Cruz and Mike Lee have started."

Palin opened the door last week to helping unseat Graham in South Carolina and a number of other incumbent Republicans, including Sen. Mitch McConnell in Kentucky and Lamar Alexander in Tennessee.

'Going to shake things up'

"We're going to shake things up in 2014," Palin wrote on Facebook, still her preferred public megaphone. "Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races. Let's start with Kentucky -- which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi -- from sea to shining sea we will not give up. We've only just begun to fight.

The post, which was "liked" by more than 31,000 of her followers, was rapidly picked up by a range of conservative websites. Palin's small circle of advisers received an uptick in their usual flood of speaking requests, one adviser said, including from some of the insurgent conservative candidates running for Senate.

One of those who reached out was Chris McDaniel, a state senator from Mississippi gunning to take out six-term Sen. Thad Cochran, a low-key but powerful member of the upper chamber who has served in Washington for more than three decades. McDaniel has already been endorsed by two conservative outfits, the Club For Growth and the Senate Conservatives Fund, hungry to unseat Cochran.

McDaniel said Palin's endorsement, if it comes, would be an unquestionable boon, especially in a deep red state like Mississippi, where GOP primaries are dominated by a small-but-motivated base electorate. Even during the high-profile Republican presidential primary of 2012, only about 300,000 people cast ballots. That's in a state with nearly two million registered voters.

"Sarah Palin understand that there is a movement out there of good conservatives and just regular people," McDaniel told CNN. "She taps into that. We would absolutely welcome her."

Palin's ability to propel tea party-aligned candidates into office was a well-documented phenomenon in 2010, when she endorsed over 60 Senate, House and gubernatorial candidates, the majority of whom won. Her midterm travels even inspired The Washington Post to launch a "Palin Endorsements Tracker," complete with clickable audio of a growling grizzly bear, an homage to her self-styled "Mama Grizzly" image.

A 'media blowtorch'

Though Palin's political action committee, Sarah PAC, doled out contributions to her favored candidates, her endorsements bring more than just hard dollars.

When Palin showed up in South Carolina to endorse Nikki Haley during her 2010 gubernatorial primary, a race Haley went on to win. A Republican working for a rival campaign calculated that the event generated "over a million dollars" in television and radio coverage.

"There was absolutely no way when that endorsement came down to break through the news cycle," the Republican said of Palin. "It was an earned media blowtorch."

Palin's star was burning much hotter in 2010 than it is today, but she demonstrated similar clout last year in Nebraska's three-way Republican Senate primary -- and she did so without even traveling to corn country.

In that race, establishment figures had lined up behind attorney general Jon Bruning, while outside conservative groups like FreedomWorks and the Club For Growth backed state treasurer Don Stenberg, who also had the backing of Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul.

But Palin jumped in the race late and got behind Deb Fischer, a little-known state legislator, pushing her over the finish line and stunning the political class in Washington. Fischer coasted to a win in November and is now a United States senator.

The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call described the Palin endorsement as "an adrenaline shot six days before the GOP primary." Fischer's campaign manager, Aaron Trost, said Palin helped them "dictate the tempo of the last week of the campaign." All Palin did was post a statement of support online.

"Before she endorsed we were down four points, within the margin of error and coming up slightly, and then all of a sudden the narrative changed and we dominated the news cycle," Trost said. "People who underestimate the power of her endorsement are going to be really sorry. People that write her off don't understand Republican primaries."

Given the tea party's toxic national brand -- only 31% of Americans had a favorable view of the conservative movement in a recent CNN poll -- Palin's sway is almost certainly limited to Republican primaries.

Democrats welcomed polarizing Palin to Garden State

Earlier this month, Palin campaigned on behalf of New Jersey Republican Senate candidate Steve Lonegan, who ultimately fell to Democrat Cory Booker in last week's special election.

Like few Republicans can, she attracted thousands of fired-up, flag-waving conservatives to an out-of-the-way motor speedway in the middle of the state, but Democrats were equally pumped to welcome the polarizing Palin to the Garden State. "Sarah Palin's endorsing Lonegan thrills both parties," read one headline in the Philadelphia Inquirer.

Still, Palin continues to wield great influence among grassroots conservatives, Trost argued, especially in Republican primaries in right-leaning states like Nebraska, where winning a primary all-but-guarantees a general election victory over token Democratic opposition. About 200,000 people participated in last year's Nebraska Senate primary, and Fischer essentially won a Senate seat with barely 80,000 votes.

"People forget about this sometimes, but because Sarah Palin has a child with Down syndrome, a lot of people in the pro-life community view her as not just talking the talk about pro-life but walking the walk," Trost said. "Social issues play a big factor in a low turnout Republican primary."

Despite Palin's veiled threat to campaign against veteran senators like McConnell, Cochran, Alexander and Graham, her endorsement history reveals a preference for dabbling in open primaries, rather than endorsing challengers over incumbents.

There's also the fact that each of those senators has a long-standing relationship with her former ticket-mate and political patron from 2008, Arizona Sen. John McCain, whom she continues to hold in high esteem, people close to her say. As for Graham, one of McCain's closest pals, Palin donated $1,000 to his 2014 re-election campaign through her PAC back in 2009.

Aligning herself with tea party's new guard

At the same time, Palin is now aligning herself with members of the tea party's uncompromising new guard, especially Cruz, who has made plain his distaste for old bull Senate leadership.

Palin's relationship with Cruz dates to last year, when she endorsed him during his underdog Republican primary bid in 2012. It was Cruz who introduced Palin when she spoke at CPAC in March.

During the shutdown, Palin and her husband Todd traveled to Washington to appear with Cruz and Lee at a rally to re-open the temporarily shuttered World War II memorial.

The conservative quartet later joined up with Cruz's wife for lunch at Hill Country Barbecue, a casual downtown Washington restaurant known for its brisket.

Chip Roy, Cruz's chief-of-staff, said Palin and the senator were often in communication during the shutdown, he said he expects their back-and-forth to continue into the midterm cycle.

"There is enormous respect between the two, and there is increasing communication between the offices," Roy told CNN. "As the year has progressed, I think Palin has been pretty simpatico with what Sen. Cruz and Sen. Lee have been trying to accomplish over the last year, fighting these debates, talking to the American people and challenging the status quo."

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