MARIETTA, Ga.—When Sarah Palin took the microphone in a parking lot in suburban Atlanta on Friday morning, she offered the die-hard conservative crowd assembled a nostalgic blast from the past—or something like a journey full-circle for the Republican Party.
“Oh golly, I'm glad to get to be here and thaw out,” Palin—who’d flown in from Alaska the night before—told the crowd as she bounded off a double-decker bus and into a stage drenched in Georgia sun.
The former governor and 2008 vice-presidential nominee had been recruited as the headliner for a statewide bus tour, organized by a coalition of conservative advocacy groups, to drum up enthusiasm within the conservative grassroots for Sens. Kelly Loeffler (R-GA) and David Perdue (R-GA) ahead of the Senate majority-deciding January runoff elections.
For a moment, it wasn’t hard to imagine that the scene unfolding was happening a decade ago—Palin bantering and rallying with a fired-up throng of activists. But fluttering in the crowd alongside the yellow don’t-tread-on-me flags were new blue Trump flags and the pro-police U.S. flags with the thin blue line. Red “USA” and “Make America Great Again” hats dotted the crowd.
Palin’s words, too, came in a familiar tone—but the content was unmistakably 2020. She reiterated the false claim that the election was “stolen” from President Donald Trump, and connected Loeffler’s early support for confirming Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court with legal efforts to keep Trump in office, despite the clear will of the voters.
“Kelly was the first one to publicly call for confirmation before the election—wise gal—before the election, the rigged election!” said Palin, to cheers. “And I know that's for a whole ‘nother bus stop. But for a rigged election. She had great foresight.”
“We're gonna keep making America great, and Georgia, it's in your hands,” she went on, to cheers. “It's in your hands. The eyes of America, the eyes of the world, are on Georgia, figuring out what it is that you all are going to do—and it is up to you.”
Palin has not held elected office in over 10 years, instead spending much of the last decade on television, from an ill-fated reality show on TLC to regular hits on Fox News. In that time, the conservative movement has changed considerably, and produced a new crop of stars who may shine bigger and brighter than the former Alaska governor.
But the way that movement has changed is, in no small part, because of Palin—a fact that was not lost among those who showed up to see her.
“I don’t know if I’d call myself a fan,” said Al Meyer, a 56-year old resident of East Cobb, who stood in the parking lot before the rally clutching a copy of Going Rogue, Palin’s 2009 memoir, in case he got a chance to get it signed. “She’s kind of been out of the spotlight.”
“I’m more a fan,” Meyer added, “of the movement she started.”
In picking Palin as his running-mate in 2008, the late Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) elevated to national prominence a charismatic but unpolished conservative firebrand—a populist with an inclination toward shock and fiery rhetoric, and a disinclination to apologize for any of it. Many political observers tie what came next for the GOP—the emergence of the tea party movement and, then, Donald Trump—to Palin’s emergence.
Certainly, supporters of Palin and Trump see the connections. Later that afternoon, Carol Susan Cook stood in a parking lot outside a bar in Gainesville, about 50 miles northeast of Atlanta, cheering as Palin spoke at another stop.
“She’s very close to him,” said Cook, wearing a Trump hat and a shirt showing Palin, pictured next to Barack Obama, throwing up a bunny-ears behind his head. “They're not politicians, in a way,” she said. “They're both for the common people.”
Like most campaign events that have attracted conservatives in Georgia since Nov. 3, the emotion during Palin’s stops on Friday was rooted in Trump’s election—which has been over for weeks but is very much alive in the eyes of his supporters—more so than the one Perdue and Loeffler are facing, which will determine whether or not Joe Biden has a unified Congress to work with as president.
Palin dutifully delivered her lines to buck up the GOP senators, and did so in her trademark rambling style, no more polished than it was in 2008.
“Kelly is a leader in the Senate, and that Perdue family too, from these parts,” said Palin, in Gainesville. “And I say these parts because, to me, Georgia is just a little tiny sister state to Alaska. These parts, that runs the gamut of mileage around here.” She went on to praise Perdue’s cousin—Sonny, a former Georgia governor and current U.S. Agriculture Secretary—as a “fun governor” and praised him for winning “White House Apprentice,” having survived the entirety of Trump’s first term.
And Palin proved a determined attack dog against the Democratic candidates—specifically going after Raphael Warnock, the Baptist pastor challenging Perdue, who the GOP has increasingly cast as the villain of the runoff. “I am looking at him, saying. how does that work?” said Palin. “A pastor, from the pulpit, who is pro-abortion… who has evidently has never learned that as he’s preaching peace, peace, justice, that peace begins in the womb.”
Before she climbed back on the bus—which blared the slogan “Win Georgia, Save America” on the side—Palin stopped for lots of pictures with admirers; one in Marietta wore the tri-cornered, colonial-era hat that was often seen in the tea party rallies of the Obama era.
Gavin Swafford, a 19-year old student and conservative activist in northwest Georgia’s Whitfield County, had come to Marietta on Monday to see Palin—and Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), who he helped campaign for, and a figure who some local Republicans see as quite similar to the Alaska governor. He laughed that Palin rocketed to prominence “before my time,” but praised her as “always an interesting figure.”
“She is known for her lighter side, but here, another side comes out, you see the fighter,” said Swafford, though he noted that some prominent Trumpworld figures like Greene, and Reps. Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL), might have more pull given their place at the center of today’s fights. “But,” he said, “she drew a crowd of 200, 300.”
Palin herself tossed out a few hints of what her political future holds in a post-Obama, post-Trump world. Unprompted at both stops, she criticized Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who is up for reelection in 2022, for her allegedly soft stance on judicial confirmations. Previously, Palin has teased a challenge to the two-term moderate.
She has a constituency for that challenge—at least in Georgia, some 3,000 miles away from her hometown of Wasilla, Alaska. “She needs to run in Alaska! Because we have this one that keeps getting back in, she needs to go” said Cook, the Palin fan in Gainesville.
“She’s going to be bashed by the liberals, because they do that to everyone that they are afraid of. She would be so strong.”