Had John McCain not chosen Sarah Palin to be his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, Palin would likely have been on Tuesday's ballot in Alaska's primary defending her job as governor of the frontier state.
Instead, Palin has morphed from a political unknown to the biggest kingmaker the GOP ranks, doling out endorsements and enjoying a better-than-even record as she picks winners and losers in her party's primaries.
Palin's most recent victory may be coming in her own state of Alaska, where former federal judge Joe Miller
is ahead in the GOP race against Palin nemesis, Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Miller stunned Murkowski Tuesday by finishing four points ahead of her, with several thousand ballots outstanding.
The Alaska contest is just the latest in a large number of races where Palin has weighed in, with mixed results. Of the 42 candidates that Palin endorsed in the 2010 midterm elections, 20 have won their primary races, 10 have lost, and an even dozen will know their fates in future primaries or the general election in November.
The candidates are diverse, with 22 women and 20 men coming from inside and outside the political establishment. Palin pick Carly Fiorina had never run for office before in her life, while Sen. Jim DeMint -- another Palin endorsee-- is an established leader in South Carolina running for his second term in the U.S. Senate after several terms in the U.S. House.
Some of Palin's picks were well known before she decided to support them. Former Iowa governor Terry Branstad, for example, did not need a Facebook post from Palin
to raise his name i.d. in the state he once governed. But her nod did help him lock up the votes of Tea Party activists who may have been more inclined to pick an outsider in this anti-incumbent year until Palin picked him over other Republicans in the primary.
The same goes for Sen. John McCain, who would have been Palin's boss by now had he won the White House in 2008. McCain spent more than $20 million to beat former congressman J.D. Hayworth
in the Arizona primary Tuesday, but the Palin endorsement gave McCain some much-needed bona fides after years of reaching across party lines to work with Democrats on everything from immigration reform to campaign finance restrictions.
Palin's nod had major effects for some lesser-known candidates, who shot to prominence after she chose them among their GOP rivals. Although South Carolina's Nikki Haley was known in South Carolina from her time in the state legislature, she was trailing in the polls in her race for governor until Palin's endorsement
lifted her profile outside of the state and helped fill her coffers with the cash that fueled her eventual victory in a GOP runoff.
On Tuesday night, Joe Miller became the most recent Palin-approved candidate to shatter expectations. Although pundits gave Miller virtually no chance to beat Murkowski, the West Point grad and Gulf War veteran surged past the incumbent Tuesday night.
In addition to the Palin endorsement, Miller's strong showing may also have been his pro-life position on abortion issues. Murkowski is one of the few pro-choice Republicans in the Senate and was on the ballot Tuesday along with an abortion-related ballot initiative, the first in the state's history. The measure, which requires doctors to notify the parents of a minor seeking an abortion, was approved 55 percent to 44 percent after more than $1 million of ads flooded the airwaves leading up to Election Day.
More Primaries Coverage:
- Lisa Murkowski Trails Joe Miller in Alaska Senate Race
- Palin Power: A Losing Month for Endorsements, but Up Overall
- Establishment Candidates, Insurgents Both Score in Tuesday's Primaries
- Rick Scott Lags Behind Alex Sink in Florida Governor Race, Paying Price for Divisive Primary
- Rodney Glassman vs. John McCain: A David and Goliath Senate Fight in Arizona
- See all of Politics Daily's 2010 Elections coverage
There's no way to know exactly what lifted Miller from long shot to contender this week, but he gave full credit to Palin's endorsement. "I'm absolutely certain that was pivotal," he told the Anchorage Daily News.
Murkowski agreed that Palin's involvement had an effect, but she wasn't happy about it. "I think she's out for her own self-interest," Murkowski told the newspaper. "I don't think she's out for Alaska's interest."
The winner of the contest will face Sitka mayor Scott McAdams
, a Democrat, in November.
Despite the hit of publicity and the possible Tea Party steam, a nod from Palin has not always guaranteed success. Georgia governor hopeful Karen Handel could not beat
former congressman Nathan Deal to win the party's nod in a runoff earlier this month even after Palin traveled to Georgia to campaign with her.
More relevant for the November general elections, Palin's strong support for Doug Hoffman in the 2009 special election in New York's 23rd congressional district ran afoul of other Republicans' support for Dede Scozzafava
. The split eventually weakened the GOP field and opened the door for Democrat Bill Owens to win the previously Republican House seat.
With so much riding on her endorsements, Time
magazine asked her recently how she decides whom to choose.
"Oftentimes I'm looking at the candidate who shares the circumstances in which I've been: underfunded, up against the machine, no big endorsements, running a grassroots campaign with the help of volunteer friends and family," Palin said. "When I see that, and can feel the momentum they can create with their passion in spite of greater challenges than their more comfortable opponents have, then I empathize, I relate, and I want to help."