Less than a week ago, Christine O’Donnell, a perennial candidate badly mismatched against Mike Castle, a fixture in Delaware politics for a generation, was given virtually no chance to win. Then, suddenly, on Sean Hannity’s radio show came the season’s must-have endorsement: Sarah Palin was backing O’Donnell. The also-ran’s fortunes changed overnight, and her campaign took off, propelled by recorded phone calls from Palin herself. On Tuesday night, O’Donnell shocked the political world with one of the biggest upsets yet in a year that has been full of them.
And so Sarah “Barracuda” added to her upstart army. From Joe Miller in Alaska to Sharron Angle in Nevada, the candidates she’s endorsed this year have triumphed at a pace that’s the envy of her rivals on the national Republican stage. She’s been so successful that even before Tuesday’s triumphs—her choice for the New Hampshire GOP Senate nomination, Kelly Ayotte, also eked out a win—candidates from around the country have been calling her parents’ house, pulling out all the stops in a bid to get the coveted Palin seal of approval. The victories have given Palin a network of allies and a huge burst of momentum as she steams toward what now seems inevitable: a 2012 presidential campaign.
Given the size of the shadow she’s casting over the political landscape, it might come as something of a surprise that her political operation is a very compact crew of core loyalists. Outside advisers like Randy Scheuenemann and Michael Goldfarb of Orion Strategies, veterans of Palin’s 2008 vice-presidential run, still advise her on foreign policy. But the engine room of Palin’s stunning 2010 presence is a group of less than 10 people, who make up SarahPAC.
• Daily Beast contributors on the primary results• Inside Palin’s Life in AlaskaThat core group will soon be tested anew, as the midterm endorsements circuit gives way to the construction in earnest of a 2012 White House campaign. This week, Palin heads to the all-important first caucus state of Iowa, where she’ll headline the state GOP’s Ronald Reagan Dinner in Des Moines—following close on the heels of prospective Republican rival Mitt Romney, who has a similarly sized PAC outfit at this stage, but is generating nowhere near the kind of media coverage Palin receives.
If Palin has made any final, official decision to run, she’s kept it from her inner circle of advisers; no doubt she’s mulling her next move with her closest confidant, her husband Todd. But lately, alongside the personal tweets that have been a primary means of communicating with the outside world in recent months, Team Palin has begun issuing press releases. The smoke signals indicate her staff has begun working in earnest on a White House run.
“It has become very apparent to everyone on her staff that she is preparing to run for president,” says a former aide.
“No one has been told directly, but staffers are working under the assumption that she’s running," says one former aide who has knowledge of the inner workings of the PAC, who requested anonymity talking about his ex-boss’ plans. "It has become very apparent to everyone on her staff that she is preparing to run for president. The staff is now working. They are writing speeches, preparing talking points, picking congressmen to endorse all under the umbrella of what you would do two years out before running for president and that’s their understanding. It’s a 2012 ball game, and they should plan on that basis.”
Ask her staff about this observation, and its members remain coy.
“No one can speak for her on that ,” said Rebecca Mansour, one of Palin’s top aides. “Nobody should underestimate her and I believe that she knows that to change the country, we have to change the Congress. So these elections are important to her because that’s what she’s focused on.”
But surely, if Palin’s endorsees are elected this fall and in office come 2012, it would be easier for her to govern, Mansour is asked. “Bingo,” the aide replies.
For the moment, Mansour and company help run interference between Palin and the conservatives around the country clamoring for her endorsement; the former Alaska governor rarely speaks directly to contenders before the laying on of hands.
Michael Grimm, who won Tuesday night’s GOP primary for Staten Island’s House seat, is a case in point; he sought Palin’s endorsement and received it, but never directly spoke with her and instead worked with her staff. O’Donnell, the Delaware Senate upstart, has said that before her win Tuesday night that she hadn’t spoken to Palin since meeting with her at Glenn Beck’s “Restoring Honor” rally in Washington on August 28.
The way the endorsement game has unfolded is no accident. It’s all part of a media strategy mapped out last April, when SarahPAC staffers gathered at the Southern Republican Leadership Conference in New Orleans to hear their boss speak. The event also gave the cyberoffice (aides are scattered around the country) a chance to meet together face to face instead of the usual conference calls and emails they rely on to make the PAC tick.
The meeting was harmonious, but some strategic tensions ran beneath the surface. Staffers decided not to hire a communications director, but rather to continue to rely on Palin’s tweets and Facebook posts as the primary way of dialoguing with the public and the press (aside from her contract with Fox News). Some in attendance were upset by this course of action, preferring instead to hire an official press spokesperson—a role that remains as yet unfilled.
The meeting was run by Jason Recher, her closest aide at the time, who has been by Palin’s side since the 2008 campaign. A loyal aide, he accompanied her to countless rallies and paid speeches, not to mention every stop along on her Going Rogue book tour. But Recher has since been sidelined for Mansour. A SarahPAC staffer described Recher as “being in the hot seat,” although he is still employed by the PAC.
All of her close aides must adhere to a code of honesty and total loyalty to the candidate. No one is allowed to speak to the press without Palin’s express approval. (Palin declined repeated requests by The Daily Beast for an interview). “She is attracted to people who are going to take a bullet for her because she really will ask you to one day,” an aide from the 2008 campaign said.
That suits the members of her team just fine. “One of the things I have learned about her is her instincts are really good,” Mansour said. “She respects her team and her team respects her and we’ve learned that she knows what she’s doing.”
Shushannah Walshe covers politics for The Daily Beast. She is the co-author of Sarah From Alaska: The Sudden Rise and Brutal Education of a New Conservative Superstar. She was a reporter and producer at the Fox News Channel from August 2001 until the end of the 2008 presidential campaign.