When Sarah Palin announced her return to politics with a surprise bid for Congress, she might have expected a hero’s welcome from today’s MAGA foot soldiers on Capitol Hill.
The former Alaska governor and GOP veep nominee was, after all, a key early endorser of Donald Trump, who quickly endorsed her comeback bid. Arguably, few other Republicans are as responsible as Palin for seeding Trump’s rise—or the rise of dozens of lawmakers who make up his enthusiastic cheering section today.
But in the corners most primed for a Palin comeback, not everyone seemed to be celebrating America’s “Mama Grizzly” coming out of political hibernation. At times, the reception from Palin’s would-be colleagues has been downright ambivalent.
When The Daily Beast asked their thoughts on Palin’s campaign, for instance, two prominent MAGA lawmakers literally shrugged in response.
One was Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), the influential de facto dean of the party’s right flank in Congress, the House Freedom Caucus. His first response to Palin deciding to run: “That’s fine.”
Jordan noted there are a number of candidates—48 to be exact—who are also running for Alaska’s lone House seat. “There are lots of good people, but she would be great,” Jordan said. “We just want a good, conservative Republican to win.”
The former Obama and Trump doctor turned MAGA firebrand Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) seemed to have not even heard the news—or thought much about Palin at all. When asked if he’d want to see her in Congress, Jackson said, “Sure, why not?”
Another member of the House Freedom Caucus, Rep. David Schweikert (R-AZ), also shrugged. He spoke about Palin as if she were a reality TV star first, not a former governor and vice presidential nominee.
“We actually are sort of in the time of the celebrity candidate,” said Schweikert. “In a weird way… I hate to say this… ‘So?’ We have professional football players running. We have professional athletes. It's just the nature of the environment.”
That’s not to say Republicans entirely gave Palin the cold shoulder. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), the most famous member of the House GOP’s far right, evinced no worry that Palin might steal her thunder. Greene welcomed Palin’s announcement with glee on social media.
Another right-wing favorite, Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-TX), was enthusiastic about the prospect of Palin walking the halls of Congress.
“I think it’d be fun,” Gohmert told The Daily Beast.
Trump certainly thinks it would be.
According to people with knowledge of the matter, the twice-impeached former president’s endorsement came together relatively quickly. Once Palin told Trump she was running, it was a foregone conclusion that he would formally bless her campaign.
Two sources familiar with the situation said Trump and his team have already begun making plans for the ex-president to visit Alaska this summer, in part to campaign for Palin. A date or rally hasn’t been publicly announced and the plans are still being finalized, but according to one of the sources, “campaigning for Sarah Palin and getting her elected are on the list of priorities for the [former] president” this year.
It would be one thing if Palin’s ascent were to be decided by her would-be colleagues—or by Trump—but it’s not. That responsibility belongs to a group with perhaps the most complicated relationship to Palin: the voters of Alaska.
That is not necessarily good news for the former governor. Democratic and GOP operatives alike say recent polling shows Palin remains deeply unpopular.
It has been more than a decade since Palin resigned as Alaska governor to pursue her career in entertainment. But many Alaskans apparently have not forgotten the record she left behind—or the ethics scandals that trailed her during and after her term.
That includes some staunch conservatives in Alaska, like Suzanne Downing, the owner of an influential conservative blog in Alaska called Must Read Politics. In a Monday column, Downing slammed Palin’s candidacy. “We lived through her time in office” Downing wrote, “and we’ve not recovered.”
Some Republicans’ ambivalence toward Palin—or outright hostility—will help define a race that has rapidly become one of the country’s most compelling, and complex, contests in this 2022 midterm election season.
At stake is control of Alaska’s lone House seat, which belonged to Republican Don Young for five decades until his death in March. Democrats, and many Republicans, worry that if Palin is the GOP frontrunner, a Democrat could make a surprise run in this state that is far more politically idiosyncratic than many in the Lower 48 believe.
Beyond that, the race could be something of a referendum on Palin’s place within a party that, during her absence, has grown to look far more like her than like the man who made her a vice presidential nominee: John McCain.
Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, a Democratic state lawmaker and longtime Alaska political organizer, argued there are plenty of candidates who can say or do the things that made Palin notorious—just without the baggage.
“To the extent that just being right-wing and loud about it is a path to victory, she doesn’t have a monopoly on that approach by any means,” said Kreiss-Tomkins.
What Palin does have, however, is near-universal name recognition, the backing of Donald Trump, an immense social media following, and the ability to raise piles of money.
All of those advantages set her apart from the other 47 candidates in the race. Notable names include Nick Begich III, who was primarying Young before his death and comes from a famous Alaska political family; Al Gross, an independent but Democrat-aligned candidate who ran for Senate in 2020; Josh Revak, a GOP state senator; Tara Sweeney, a former Trump administration official; and Santa Claus, a city council member in North Pole. (This is not a joke: Claus, a devotee of Bernie Sanders, is seen as a legit candidate.)
The mechanics of this election might be even more overwhelming than the field of candidates. Through November, there will be no fewer than four separate elections, held on three different dates.
On June 11, voters will participate in a special primary election, with the top four vote-getters proceeding to the special general election on Aug. 16. The winner will serve until January 2023, the remainder of Young’s term in office.
Also on Aug. 16, however, there will be the regular primary election to determine the top four candidates for the Nov. 8 general election. That one will decide who gets to represent Alaska in Congress for the next two years.
This will also be the first election that Alaska uses a system called ranked-choice voting. That system, used in 2020 in Maine, asks voters to list candidates on their ballots in order of preference. If no candidate cracks 50 percent at first, ranked choice sets up an instant runoff where lower performing candidates are eliminated and their supporters’ second choices receive their votes.
In short, Alaska politicos are preparing for chaos. “This election is atypical, so it’ll be run in an atypical way,” said Cale Green, a GOP operative in the state, who has worked for Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s campaigns.
Green explained that the confusing and abbreviated election schedule—which takes place at a time when many Alaskans are outside enjoying the state’s brief summer—means Palin’s name brand and fundraising ability will prove even more powerful. He said that many insiders are tentatively putting their money on Palin.
“She won in 2006 because people doubted her ability to perform,” said Green, referring to Palin’s victory in the Alaska governor race that put her on the map.
“People continue to doubt her ability to perform—I hear the same language now, ‘Sarah Palin has lost it,’” Green said. “This will be an election of soundbites, and I don’t know if any politician can do it better.”
Palin also does have powerful allies beyond Trump, even if they are not in Alaska.
In 2010, Palin was a key player behind the Tea Party wave, elevating dozens of candidates for Congress and governorships. Today, many of those Palin picks hold positions of influence, like former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley, Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Rand Paul (R-KY). Haley was one of the first national GOP figures to back Palin’s bid for Congress, and Paul has already moved to do the same.
Begich, who is seen by Alaska insiders as the main MAGA-lane rival to Palin, has taken swipes at her out-of-state support. He told Must Read Alaska that it’s “nice for Sarah” that she got Trump’s nod, but insisted he was excited about endorsements from the Alaskans “who are going to be the ones actually voting in and deciding this election.”
The attack lines on Palin are plentiful for her rivals on the right and left. There is, for one, that baggage from her tumultuous time as governor, including the scandal over her firing of the state’s public safety chief for personal reasons, and a record on budget issues that rubbed many conservatives the wrong way.
Then there’s her track record after office, which included a quest for reality TV stardom: she hosted a TLC reality TV show called Sarah Palin’s Alaska and briefly started her own online TV channel.
In recent years, she has made news further away from her home state for casting doubt on life-saving COVID vaccines and losing a libel lawsuit against The New York Times, which was delayed because she herself contracted COVID.
If nothing else, Palin has been a loyal soldier for Trump. His endorsement is merely the latest entry in a long-running saga, turbo-charged by their mutual hatred of Obama, McCain, and other famous Democrats and Republicans who once laughed them off.
In 2011, when many in political polite society were denouncing or rolling their eyes at The Donald for leading a racist birther crusade against then-President Barack Obama, Palin openly “appreciate[d]” it. In early 2015, months before Trump launched his presidential bid, Palin appeared on NBC sketch-comedy show Saturday Night Live, where she joked, “What if I were to choose Donald Trump as my running mate?”
When Trump did run later that year, he didn’t pick Palin. However, she made sure to let Trump know almost immediately that he’d have her support.
“Palin called Donald a day or so after he announced [in June 2015], and it was a call he was happy to take, and a call where he was interested in listening to her point of view regarding the campaign kick-off,” Sam Nunberg, a former political adviser to Trump, recounted on Wednesday.
Now, Trump is returning the favor.
“I hope she does well. I think she would be a breath of fresh air in Congress…[and] I think people would find her to be very effective,” said Newt Gingrich, a former House speaker and an informal adviser to Trump. In 2012, then-candidate Gingrich had said that if he were to win the presidency, Palin would have a “major role” in his administration.
Even if Palin’s approval ratings are broadly somewhat underwater, admirers and detractors alike note she does have a devoted base in Alaska. Green, the GOP operative, theorized she could spark record turnout in a sleepy election—voters coming out both for and against her.
Already, Palin’s lead rival in the left lane of the race is fundraising off her lightning-rod status.
Gross, a doctor who raised $19 million in 2020 running against a low-key senator, set up a page on the Democratic fundraising platform ActBlue with a simple message: “Stop Sarah Palin! Donate to Al Gross for Congress.”
In a statement to The Daily Beast, Gross did not say much about Palin at all, emphasizing that he got into the race after Young’s death, not after the former governor got in.
“We are laser-focused on running a campaign for Alaska, focused on the issues that matter most to Alaskans—that’s it,” Gross said.
It’s yet another thing that makes Palin so similar to Trump. Both, apparently, have an ability to make any contest about themselves, and to force everyone else into the tortured exercise of figuring out exactly how much to care about them.
Few figures have attempted to navigate the currents of today’s GOP more publicly than Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC), the McCain ally turned Trump stalwart. It may mean something extra, then, that Graham had nothing but good things to say about Palin’s return to the political arena.
"I've always liked her,” Graham said. “She can take the heat. She can throw a punch, and that’s a good thing.”