No Room for Palin in Party She Remade?

What to make of her second straight loss?

“Sarah Pailn” by Gage Skidmore is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

NYT politics reporter Jeremy W. Peters makes an interesting but unpersuasive claim in his memo, “Sarah Palin Loses as the Party She Helped Transform Moves Past Her.”

It is hard to overstate just how much of a jolt to the political system Sarah Palin delivered when she defeated her first fellow Republican 16 years ago.

He was Frank Murkowski, the sitting governor of Alaska and a towering figure in the 49th state. She was a “hockey mom” and the former mayor of a small, working-class town who vowed to stick it to the “good ol’ boys.” That race put her on the map with the national Republican Party and set her on a path that would change her life, and the tenor of American politics for years to come.

Then, Ms. Palin was at the vanguard of the dog-whistling, no-apologies political culture that former President Donald J. Trump now embodies.

Today, having lost her bid for Congress after years out of the spotlight, Ms. Palin is a much diminished force.

She was, in many ways, undone by the same political currents she rode to national prominence, first as Senator John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee in 2008 and later as a Tea Party luminary and Fox News star. Along the way, she helped redefine the outer limits of what a politician could say as she made dark insinuations about Barack Obama’s background and false claims about government “death panels” that could deny health care to seniors and people with disabilities.

Now, a generation of Republican stars follows the template she helped create as a hybrid celebrity-politician who relished fighting with elements in her own party as much as fighting with Democrats — none more so than Mr. Trump, who watched her closely for years before deciding to run for president himself. He ensured this month that he would remain in the spotlight, announcing another bid for the White House in 2024.

But as the next generation rose up, Ms. Palin’s brand of politics no longer seemed as novel or as outrageous. Next to Mr. Trump’s lies about a huge conspiracy to deny him a second term, or Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene’s casual allusions to political violence, Ms. Palin’s provocations more than a decade ago can seem almost quaint.

Peters goes on to make a good case about the degree to which Palin shifted the national party and to remind us that, as unprepared as she was to be a heartbeat away from the Presidency in 2008, she was actually an effective and popular governor before she quit mid-term after losing that election. It’s also true that the spunky, off-script Palin of 2008 seems rather wholesome and banal in comparison to some of the QAnon types that have won seats in Congress and nominations for governorships and the Senate—to say nothing of Trump.

But her second-straight loss in her Alaska comeback would seem to indicate the opposite of Peters’ thesis.

The reversal of Ms. Palin’s political fortunes today means that many of the renegades who modeled themselves after her — and many of her rivals — have outlasted her. Lisa Murkowski, the daughter of the former Alaska governor Ms. Palin defeated 16 years ago by more than 30 points, has won her bid for another term to the United States Senate. (Ms. Murkowski, a Republican, endorsed Ms. Peltola, the Democrat who beat Ms. Palin on Tuesday.)

Alaska didn’t reject Palin for Uber Palins who out-Palined Palin. Rather, they re-elected a moderate Republican governor, a moderate Republican Senator endorsed by a moderate Democratic Representative, and a moderate Democratic Representative endorsed by the moderate Republican Senator—the latter on the strength of second ballots of those who preferred a moderate Republican to Palin.

Now, I tend to think Alaska is sui generis and that there’s seldom much to learn from any particular down-ballot election. Rather clearly, the Republican Party as a whole is more Palinesque in 2022 than it was in 2008. Indeed, while I was roundly attacked and surely lost quite a number of readers for my continuing insistence that Palin was an ignoramus unfit to be President then, today’s Republican voters would likely embrace that charge as another way to “own the libs.”

FILED UNDER: Campaign 2022, US Politics, , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. John430 says:

    You are overlooking that miserable ranked voting scheme that Alaska has. She won the popular vote and still lost.

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  2. wr says:

    @John430: “You are overlooking that miserable ranked voting scheme that Alaska has”

    You mean the ranked voting scheme that was overwhelmingly approved by Alaska voters and remains spectacularly popular with them? Most likely because it keeps nutballs and scumbags from riding a minority wave into office if there’s more than two candidates running?

    Of course you think it’s “miserable.” Because it takes away one of the tools the Fascists in America use to impose minority rule and returns power to the majority of the voters. If Republicans ever had to face a fair election — no gerrymandering, no racist voting restrictions — they would be competing with the greens and the libertarians for smallest vote share.

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  3. Jen says:

    @John430: Republicans in Alaska thought the ranked-choice idea was terrific when they thought it would be a way to lock OUT Democrats. The (incorrect, apparently) assumption was that Alaskans would choose Republicans consistently at the top–and, indeed, it has benefited them in holding the Alaska House.

    It is so very, very Republican to whine about the outcome of a scheme that was supposed to have the opposite effect, even if it’s just one race, when the outcome isn’t one they wished for.

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  4. James Joyner says:

    @John430: Palin got a mere 25.7% of the first-round vote to Peltola’s 48.8%. Without ranked choice, she’d have lost in an epic landslide.

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  5. Kathy says:

    I wonder. If Peltola was ahead throughout the count and ended up with more votes than Palin, but short of a majority until after the ranked votes were counted, how brain damaged does a deplorable need to be to think Palin won the “popular” vote?

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  6. OzarkHillbilly says:

    And so, the crazy raises it’s ugly, empty head.

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  7. CSK says:

    Donald out-Palined Sarah.

    You could say he Trumped her.

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  8. Joe says:

    @Kathy: There you go insisting that others use the same commonly available facts that you rely on. Soooo Woke.

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  9. JohnSF says:

    @CSK:

    You could say he Trumped her.

    You could. But you really, really shouldn’t. 🙂

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  10. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: He ruined that word for me. I will go to great lengths, perusing my thesaurus for hours just to avoid using it.

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  11. MarkedMan says:

    she was actually an effective and popular governor before she quit mid-term after losing that election

    Initially yes. But I remember reading about her when rumors started that the Repubs needed a woman candidate and her name came up in the mix. The press started reporting on both her history and her then current actions, and she was becoming decidedly less popular. She was involved more than a few very public vendettas and had been using State Police to harass people who she felt had crossed her or her family on a personal basis, or who had refused to use their public office in a way that would benefit her. We will never know if she could have turned things around, but a fair reading is that she got the VP nod in the Nick of time because her sell-by date was quickly approaching. Interesting summary here, starting with “Public Safety Commisioner Dismissal”.

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  12. MarkedMan says:

    @JohnSF: There is no form of humor lower than a pun…

    …that I didn’t get to first.

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  13. Sleeping Dog says:

    Something that is underappreciated by the national press, is how important the citizens of small states view quality representation in DC. Ohio can afford a Gym Jordan, Minnesota a Ilhan Omar and Georgia a MTG, as there are other reps that will bring home the bacon, but states like VT, NH, Utah and Montana need serious legislators that will attend to the states business. It’s no wonder that Alaska would reject a performer like Palin, the citizens of that state understand the importance of Federal largess in keeping the state moving forward.

    I would have included WY in my comment, but I feel that the state will suffer in DC by going MAGAt.

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  14. Peters notes that she resigned, but I think he downplays it as just a thing she did. I think any analysis of Palin’s Alaskan political fortunes needs to take into consideration that she quit the governor’s job very clearly to cash in on her fame and used it to become a reality TV type, and not even to pretend to do something more serious than that. I think that matters in this context.

    It doesn’t help that she became a bit of a national joke and that can’t help, either.

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  15. @John430: To echo what was noted above, here’s the link to the official results. Peltola won 48.77% of the first round votes and Palin was a distant second with 25.74%.

    Aside from that factual error, you clearly do not understand how RCV works–but it is no different than a two-round election, which we have in many states across the country, except that it happens all at once.

    But I would kindly note that what you are doing here is spouting right-wing talking points that I am sure you heard. I would gently note (sincerely) that maybe this is a great example for you to stop and think about who might be lying to you or trying to get you to accept ideas that are in contradiction to actual facts.

    I am not looking for a public concession, but am asking you just think about it.

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  16. CSK says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It’s interesting that she ended her political career by becoming a reality tv starlet and Trump launched his political career by becoming a reality tv star.

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  17. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: Steven, bring facts and reality to a fight with a trumper is just unsportsmanlike. You should ashamed.

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  18. DK says:

    Alaska is sui generis

    This. Recall why McCain tapped Palin the first place: she was a conservate woman, but mavericky. As noted, she’d been an effective governor with a bipartisan popularity. She governed less as a proto-DeSantis, more as a proto-Kasich.

    Palin has transformed, and in doing she helped transform the national party. She helped make space for guys like Trump, Florida’s DeSantis, and Ohio’s JD Vance. Like Pat Buchanan is its grandfather, Palin is in many ways the mother of the MAGA movement — although curiously not celebrated as such among the deplorables.

    Palin would still be electable in Alaska had she remained the McCain-like political maverick she once was instead of turning into a far right firebrand and quitting the Alaska governorship to be a reality TV star.

    There’s room for Palin among the Republican Party, but perhaps not so much among Alaska’s Republicans and right-leaning indies. Had Palin been able to run for the Ohio’s debate seat or to represent the Florida panhandle, she’d maybe be on her way to Congress.

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  19. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    Palin got a mere 25.7% of the first-round vote to Peltola’s 48.8%. Without ranked choice, she’d have lost in an epic landslide.

    As I often tell Steven, you can’t assume vote totals would be the same in an election under a different set of rules, especially if you are going to compare it to the first round in RCV. Under Alaska’s current system, the incentives for voters, candidates and parties are fundamentally different than how a “normal” elections would be run. Rerunning the election under a different set of rules will change those incentives and vote totals.

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  20. Kylopod says:

    @DK:

    Palin would still be electable in Alaska had she remained a McCain-like political maverick instead of quitting the Alaska governorship to be a reality TV star and far right media firebrand.

    Yep. Definitely the beginning of the end for her among Alaskans was her quitting the governorship in 2009 to pursue a career as a right-wing troll, basically. She was still pretty popular in Alaska in 2008 even after all the negative press she was getting nationally, and her own increasing unhingedness on the campaign trail. Yet the McCain-Palin ticket performed quite well in Alaska. (In 2012 it was one of six states where Obama did better than he had in 2008, and it was the state that showed his biggest improvement–he closed the gap by over 7 points.) Still, I continue to think an early sign of how she was souring herself to the Alaska electorate was her repeated lie that she had said “thanks but no thanks” to the Bridge to Nowhere, a project she had previously supported. Not only did it reveal her propensity for lying through her teeth, it also showed her willingness to throw local Alaska leaders under the bus (or the bridge, if you like) to get an applause line. She basically sold Alaska out for her national fame, and I think that’s how even many Alaskan Republicans view her these days.

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  21. Kylopod says:

    @Andy:

    As I often tell Steven, you can’t assume vote totals would be the same in an election under a different set of rules, especially if you are going to compare it to the first round in RCV. Under Alaska’s current system, the incentives for voters, candidates and parties are fundamentally different than how a “normal” elections would be run. Rerunning the election under a different set of rules will change those incentives and vote totals.

    This. And that seems to be part of the gambit that Republicans who lose under RCV take. It’s the same argument Bruce Poliquin took against Jared Golden in 2018, when he actually sued in court to have himself installed as the winner, on the grounds that he led Golden in the first round. If the courts had gone along with that argument, that in fact would have been voter disenfranchisement. What a lot of people fail to understand (mostly in bad faith, though they wouldn’t be resorting to this argument if it weren’t persuasive to some) is that on RCV, second choices are part of a person’s vote. For instance, in 2018 if someone selected an indie candidate as first choice and Jared Golden as second choice, that does not mean they would have voted for the indie on a traditional single-choice ballot. Their decision to put the indie in the first place was informed by the knowledge that second choices could count, and therefore that putting the indie in first place was less likely to cause a spoiler effect against Golden.

    Similarly, in this year’s Alaska race those voters who put Begich in first place and Peltola in second were clearly signaling that they preferred Peltola over Palin and probably would have voted for Peltola over Palin in a two-person race using a traditional single-choice ballot. But Republicans are now acting like the fact that more voters selected a Republican candidate than a Dem on first choice proves they “voted for a Republican,” full stop. They are furthering the lie that the first choice represents the entirety of the vote, even for voters who went in with the understanding that that wasn’t the case.

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  22. Slugger says:

    Sarah Palin changed. She’s not a cutie weather girl from a town of four thousand. She plays to the national stage. She’s divorced from the local guy. She appears to reside in Arizona. She’s been on TV shows like the Masked Singer.
    Wasilla has changed. There’s a Fred Myers in town.
    Not the same world, not the same girl.

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  23. Kylopod says:

    @Slugger:

    Sarah Palin changed. She’s not a cutie weather girl from a town of four thousand.

    I think the issue of sexism has to be factored into this discussion, but I’m always a little cautious here, because it tends to get reduced to a simplistic “Trump did better because he was a man” formula. There is somewhat of a model for right-wing women celebs, forged partially by Phyllis Schlafly a couple of generations ago, but also involving the woman’s youthful good looks and sex appeal (by conventional white American barbie-doll standards, the kind that Fox News has used in its choice of female anchors for decades). Obviously, this has a sell-by date. Why go back to their first love when they have Lauren Boebert?

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  24. CSK says:

    @Kylopod:

    I agree about the looks factor, but then there’s Marjorie Taylor Greene, who appears oddly Neanderthal: http://www.eartharchives.org/articles/human-dna-found-in-a-neanderthal-woman/index.html

    Perhaps Greene is the exception that proves the rule.

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  25. gVOR08 says:

    @CSK: Whoa, am I detecting anti-Neanderthal bias? Actually I’m reminded of a joke my brother, the Reverend repeated. A leader of his Lutheran synod opened a speech by saying he normally opened with a joke, but all too often he used an ethnic joke and he knew that was improper. But he’d gotten some advice, it was OK to joke about ethnic groups that were imaginary or no longer existed. “So…. there were these two Hittites…. Sven and Ollie…”

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  26. CSK says:

    @gVOR08:

    Well, I’m following the example of the Lutheran synod leader. But I apologize to any lurking Neanderthals.

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  27. Kathy says:

    @CSK:

    Pretty much everyone not of entirely African descent, has some Neanderthal genes.

    And absolutely everyone has virus genes, and possibly genes from other species. Did you know fish genes have been found in bacteria? It’s very likely infection led to sexual reproduction in early multicellular organisms.

    But I digress.

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  28. @Andy: This is true. But it is also true that the vote totals as they exist undercut John430’s claim, which was James’ point.

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  29. @Andy:

    As I often tell Steven, you can’t assume vote totals would be the same in an election under a different set of rules,

    Also, for the record, Steven does understand this.

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  30. Sleeping Dog says:

    @gVOR08:

    Actually, Sven and Ollie jokes were very popular in Minnesota. The Swedes assumed Sven and Ollie were Danish, the Danes assumed they were Norwegians and the Norwegians assumed they were Fins. The Fins didn’t care as they were too busy jumping into frozen lakes and beating each other with boughs. The Irish and the Germans looked at all this and laughed.

    There was also a class aspect to the jokes, as Sven and Ollie were portrayed as low skilled workers.

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  31. James Joyner says:

    @Andy:

    Rerunning the election under a different set of rules will change those incentives and vote totals.

    Sure. I was just responding to a poster who seemed to think Palin got more first-round votes and was only defeated because of the exigencies of RCV. As I noted in yesterday’s breakdown of the Alaska results, it’s possible that, absent the ability to vote for an alternative Republican in the first round, Republican voters who didn’t like Palin would have held their noses and voted for her. But, given that we just went through this a few months back with the same set of candidates and same rules, I suspect Alaska voters simply did not want Palin back, even at the cost of sending a moderate Democrat to the House.

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  32. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @CSK: Apology accepted, not that I ever take such slights personal.

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  33. senyordave says:

    She liked being governor, didn’t like the fact that she actually had to do work. Also, it meant occasionally reading and learning facts, something that she seems to have avoided like the plague. She seemed like a character from a reality show from day one, and not a very bright one at that.

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  34. CSK says:

    @senyordave:

    …doesn’t like to read
    …doesn’t like to learn
    …won’t work
    …seems like a character from a reality show
    …not very bright

    Hmmm. Where have we seen such a festival of disqualifications for office before?

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  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kathy: John doesn’t actually believe that. He’s just trolling. It’s hard to troll with no bait on the hook, but he hasn’t figured that out yet.

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  36. wr says:

    @Andy: “Rerunning the election under a different set of rules will change those incentives and vote totals.”

    Yes, I’m sure the 75% of voters who did not put Palin first on the ranked choice ballot would have voted for her in a non-ranked-choice election.

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  37. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I think–Marked Man’s snark aside–that we all get that it’s sort of a teachable moment event. Shouldn’t pass those up. Even if only the lurkers grok it.

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  38. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Slugger: At the time of her suit with FTFNYT, her significant other was a player on the Ranger’s hockey team IIRC. Maybe she moved again.

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  39. Andy says:

    @James Joyner:

    John can speak for himself, but I did miss the “she” in his comment and I initially thought he was talking about the vote total – IOW, more people voted for the two Republican candidates in aggregate than the Democratic candidate, hence the assumption that a single Republican candidate would have won in a straight-up contest and that it’s not fair for Republicans to get more votes but lose the election.

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Yes, you understand this, but still continue to use aggregate vote totals to suggest that partisan disparities in representation are unfair. In this particular case, to use your logic as I understand it, more people voted for Republican candidates, yet a Democrat won, hence that is a spurious majority.

    My point is that we don’t know who would have won or how the representation would be different under a different set of electoral circumstances. And so the GoP argument and complaint that Republicans lost this race because of RCV despite Republicans getting more votes is irrelevant in the same way that your arguments about spurious majorities in the House are irrelevant.

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  40. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Andy: hence the assumption that a single Republican candidate would have won in a straight-up contest and that it’s not fair for Republicans to get more votes but lose the election.

    And you know what assuming does, it makes an ass out of you and, well, not me. You, and 430, assume that the votes for 2 GOP candidates would be lumped together for a single GOP candidate despite the fact that a significant # didn’t want that alternative.

    Oh yeah, and “Wah.”

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  41. Jen says:

    @Andy:

    more people voted for the two Republican candidates in aggregate than the Democratic candidate, hence the assumption that a single Republican candidate would have won in a straight-up contest and that it’s not fair for Republicans to get more votes but lose the election.

    The execrable Paul LePage won his first race for Maine’s Governor when the vote was split multiple ways because there were 4 or 5 candidates on the ballot. He won with 38% of the vote.

    This “but *combined* X party would have won” is not necessarily the case. Every election is different.

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  42. MarkedMan says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:Talking about yourself in the third person now? MarekedMan thinks this is sketchy…

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  43. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: John got many replies. I think by his metrics, it was a pretty successful outing.

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  44. MarkedMan says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: Even MarkedMan agrees. The snark wasn’t aimed at the regulars.

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  45. DK says:

    @Andy:

    hence the assumption that a single Republican candidate would have won in a straight-up contest and that it’s not fair for Republicans to get more votes but lose the election.

    Ha. Not even going to bother asking if John or any other right-leaning voter has ever said “its not fair for Hillary Clinton to get more votes but lose the election” or “it’s not fair for Democrats to get more votes but lose the Senate.”

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  46. @MarkedMan: Sometimes one just has to go all Bob Dole on the situation.

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