Sarah Palin returns to the national stage and a Republican Party made in her image

The former VP candidate is running for elected office for the first time since her ill-fated 2008 campaign alongside John McCain, writes Richard Hall

Wednesday 17 August 2022 18:55 BST

When John McCain chose Sarah Palin as his running mate in the 2008 presidential election, she was seen by his own team as something of a wildcard; a Hail Mary for a campaign that was losing steam.

The former Alaska governor and self-described “hockey mom” was a rarity at the top tier of national politics: she was notoriously averse to facts and policy detail, she fully embraced culture war issues, and smeared her political opponents with innuendo and falsehoods.

But today, as she makes a return to the national stage by way of a congressional race in Alaska, she is welcomed back by an altogether different party to the one she left behind — one in which her brand of anti-intellectualism and populism is the norm. Today, it is Sarah Palin’s Republican Party, and Donald Trump’s, more than it is John McCain’s.

Ms Palin has thrown her hat into the ring in a special election that begins today to replace Rep Don Young, who held Alaska’s lone congressional seat for almost 50 years before his death in March. The winner will only serve what remains of Mr Young’s term, which ends in January.

The race began with an initial cross-party primary with 48 candidates on the ballot, before being whittled down to the top four. Ms Palin came out on top in the first round, but the special election winner will be determined by ranked-choice voting — a first for Alaska, and a method that favours less divisive candidates who can draw in votes from their rival’s supporters.

She faces off against Republican businessperson Nick Begich III and Democratic former state Rep Mary Peltola.

While the winner won’t be known until the end of August, when all the mailed ballots have been counted, Ms Palin’s return may offer a litmus test for a Republican Party at a crossroads.

It is the first time the former governor has sought elected office since the 2008 campaign that made her a household name, and in the eyes of many, set the GOP on the path to its current form.

Ms Palin was a virtual unknown on the national stage when Mr McCain chose her as his vice presidential candidate. Her speech to the 2008 Republican convention in Minneapolis, when her place on the ticket was formalised, was viewed as controversial at the time, but would barely raise an eyebrow today.

“I am not a member of the permanent Washington establishment. And I’ve learned quickly, these past few days, that if you’re not a member in good standing of the Washington elite, then some in the media consider a candidate unqualified for that reason alone,” she said, to sustained cheers from the crowd.

Her candidacy did what it was supposed to do, for a short time at least. Her folksiness and unapologetic attacks appealed to the GOP’s conservative base. Her campaign stops drew crowds that rivalled Mr McCain’s.

But the mistakes began to add up, and Ms Palin ultimately became a drag on the campaign under the harsh media spotlight that comes with a presidential run. When questioned about her foreign policy credentials, she cited the proximity of Russia to her home state of Alaska. When asked about the newspapers and magazines she read to stay on top of current events, she replied: “All of ’em, any of them.”

The gaffes, taken together, made it easy for Democrats to portray Ms Palin as unprepared for a position that put her a heartbeat away from the presidency.

Mr McCain eventually lost, and Ms Palin’s inclusion on the ticket was viewed by many as a fatal mistake.

Ms Palin stepped down as Alaska’s governor the following year, citing the multiple ethics complaints and investigations resulting from her tenure, but her popularity among the GOP base ensured her relevance for the next few years.

Ms Palin remained a favourite of Fox News in the subsequent years and was a favourite of the Tea Party movement, which exploded as a bulwark against Barak Obama’s first term.

She wrote a memoir and starred in a reality television show about her life called Sarah Palin’s Alaska in the interim. There were rumours of a potential presidential run, but Ms Palin’s political star eventually faded.

It looked for a time as though Ms Palin would remain in the political wilderness — that the party had moved on. Then came Donald Trump.

Mr Trump’s shock victory in the 2016 presidential election and his dramatic reshaping of the Republican Party in his own image created a space once again for Ms Palin. She was among the first nationally recognised Republican figures to endorse Mr Trump, and her backing among Tea Party activists was seen as a pivotal moment in his campaign.

Since Mr Trump’s ascendancy to the White House, Ms Palin has been quietly plotting a return to the national spotlight. Shortly after his election she reportedly expressed an interest in joining his administration. In 2018, she teased a primary challenge to Alaskan Republican senator Lisa Murkowski.

She decided to hold fire, and instead entered a crowded race for Alaska’s sole congressional seat following the March death of ​​Rep Don Young, who held it for almost 50 years.

Ms Palin’s time away from politics has done little to blunt her characteristic combativeness.

“America is at a tipping point. As I’ve watched the far left destroy the country, I knew I had to step up and join the fight,” she said in a statement announcing her run in April.

“At this critical time in our nation’s history, we need leaders who will combat the left’s socialist, big-government, America-last agenda,” she continued.

Mr Trump wasted no time in returning the favour and endorsing Ms Palin just two days after she announced her run.

“Sarah shocked many when she endorsed me very early in 2016, and we won big,” Mr Trump said in a statement. “Now it’s my turn.”

“Sarah lifted the McCain presidential campaign out of the dumps despite the fact that she had to endure some very evil, stupid, and jealous people within the campaign itself. They were out to destroy her, but she didn’t let that happen,” Mr Trump added.

His endorsement might have made easy work of the race were it not for Alaska’s ranked-choice voting system — Mr Trump won Alaska by 10 points in the 2020 election.

But while the Republican Party has moved closer to Ms Palin’s world view in the time she has been away, many are dreading her return.

Former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, who helped lead John McCain’s failed 2008 presidential campaign and pushed him to choose Ms Palin as his running mate, has come out forcefully against her future involvement in political life.

In a 2020 documentary about the divide in American politics today, Mr Schmidt blamed Ms Palin for ushering in a “post-truth” era that led to Mr Trump’s ascendency.

“She is the first of a generation of politicians who live in a post-truth environment. She was, and there’s no polite way to say it, but a serial liar,” he said in the Frontline documentary America’s Great Divide: From Obama to Trump.

In May, in a series of tweets following her announcement to run, he called her “an absolutely degenerate liar. Pathological. Unfit. Unwell”.

“She’s a quitter and a buffoon who has no business ever holding a position of public trust, ever,” he added.

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