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Sarah Palin's Future: Will 2010 Set the Stage for 2012?

4 years ago
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It may be 2010, but former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is running like it's 2012.

Palin's political action committee, Sarah PAC, has taken in almost $5 million. The 2008 vice presidential candidate used her PAC as well as Facebook, Twitter and her Organize4Palin Web site to give her stamp of approval to more than 100 conservative Republicans in federal and state races.

Her use of social media and her popularity with tea party devotees has shone a brighter light on Palin's activities in the midterms than those of her potential 2012 opponents. Mitt Romney, Tim Pawlenty, Newt Gingrich, Haley Barbour and others often gave more midterm money directly to candidates and, more importantly, hosted fundraisers on their behalf. But Palin's star power draws the focus away from other efforts.

The success of Palin's candidates -- especially those in close races -- on Tuesday will contribute to her cachet as a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2012. Certainly, many of those who received her endorsement -- and the occasional cash that went with it -- may be likely to return the favor two years down the road.

"In politics, part of being able to support other people of your party in your election endeavor is a way you build your network and you build power," says Susan MacManus, a political science professor at the University of South Florida. "She's basically building a lot of clout within the party. She can raise money, she can turn out crowds. People read into her the ability to impact an election."

So 2010 is as much about raising Palin's visibility as it is about helping her fellow Mama and Papa Grizzlies. Sarah PAC gave a mere $320,000 to candidates between June 2009 and Oct. 13, only 6.4 percent of her total take through that time. Instead, Palin has spent the bulk of her cash on political consultants, fund-raising and traveling the country. The fund-raising efforts, continuous public speaking engagements and building a list of more than 5,000 presumably devoted donors could all be a boost to a 2012 candidacy.

A look at the recipients of Palin's PAC donations and endorsements clearly points to 2012, with candidates and parties from early primary states benefiting. Candidates in South Carolina have received $25,500 from Sarah PAC, while the Iowa Republican Party got $10,000, with another $12,500 going to candidates in that state. In New Hampshire, Palin's group dropped the maximum $10,000 into Kelly Ayotte's run for an empty U.S. Senate seat.

That isn't to say Palin is taking the easy road to 2012. She's made plenty of risky bets this year, especially during primary season, when she endorsed some 31 candidates in competitive governor's, U.S. House and Senate races. Her record? A winner, at 20-11. But those primary bets included losses in Washington state's Senate primary; House primaries in Arkansas, Mississippi, Idaho and Colorado; and governor's races in Georgia, Maryland and Wyoming.

Some of Palin's long-shot success will be tested Tuesday, particularly in her home state of Alaska. Sen. Lisa Murkowski became the first beneficiary of Sarah PAC with a $5,000 donation June 9, 2009. But the relationship between two erstwhile Mama Grizzlies has long since gone south, with Palin's endorsement of Joe Miller, the ultimate GOP primary winner who is now beset by scandal and a strong write-in effort from Murkowski.

Then there's Christine O'Donnell, the Delaware upstart now better know for her "I'm not a witch" ad than for her upset of establishment Republican Mike Castle in the primary, a win enabled by Palin and other tea party supporters. O'Donnell appears destined for defeat in a Senate seat the GOP had hoped to win.

Not all conservative candidates are part of the Palin cabal. She didn't endorse Washington GOP Senate candidate Dino Rossi after her chosen one lost to him in the primary. In Colorado, rumors swirled that Palin would endorse former Lt. Gov. Jane Norton in the Senate primary, but she never did. And she's never formally come out for GOP candidate Ken Buck, who criticized Palin's appearance at a paid speech in Denver the evening of the Republican state assembly. She's also steered clear of Senate endorsements in Louisiana, Illinois, Wisconsin and Indiana.

And not all of Palin's candidates are Mama Grizzlies, the term she popularized in a May speech and subsequent YouTube video. Only 25 of the 90-plus general election candidates Palin has endorsed or donated to are women. Of the 31 candidates she's endorsed on Facebook in October, only four are women.

How will Palin's endorsement and fund-raising success be measured come Tuesday?

Health-care reform targets. Palin began her midterm quest in earnest when President Barack Obama's health-care bill passed Congress in March, placing a bullseye on 23 Democratic House members who voted for it. She's endorsed GOP candidates in 20 of those districts, many of which could swing Republican this midterm.

The close races. If Nikki Haley is elected governor of South Carolina, a good share of thanks has to go to Palin, who came out early for Haley and stood by her girl when accusations of adultery surfaced. Likewise, a Miller win in Alaska would be huge for both him and for Palin. She didn't endorse Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle in the primary, but she's been plenty supportive since, so count a win for Sharron as a win for Sarah. An O'Donnell upset in the general would be huge all the way around.

The payback. If Terry Branstad returns to the Iowa governor's mansion, will he still remember Palin's surprise endorsement next summer, when the 2012 presidential contest starts to take off? What about Iowa Sen. Chuck Grassley? Or Haley in South Carolina and Ayotte in New Hampshire? For Palin, this election may be all about giving something to get something back.

"Nobody has a 100 percent win record," MacManus says. "But if you have a pretty good track record, that makes you a player in the next round of elections.

"We're going to wait and see what her success ratio is."


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