Republican Sarah Palin re-emerged in Alaska politics over a decade after resigning as governor with hopes of winning the state’s U.S. House seat. She had a lot going for her: unbeatable name recognition, the backing of former President Donald Trump in a state he carried twice, an unrivaled ability to attract national media attention.
But she struggled to catch fire with voters, some of whom were put off by her 2009 resignation, and ran what critics saw as a lackluster campaign against a Republican endorsed by state party leaders and a breakout Democrat who pitched herself as a regular Alaskan and ran on a platform of “fish, family and freedom.”
Palin lost two elections for the House seat Republican Don Young held for 49 years before his death in March — an August special ballot to determine who would serve the remainder of his term and the Nov. 8 general election for a full two-year term. Results of the Nov. 8 election were announced Wednesday. Both ranked-choice votes were won by Democrat Mary Peltola, who is Yup’ik and with her win in the special election became the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress.
Peltola, a former state lawmaker, avoided the sniping between Palin and Republican Nick Begich, who cast the former governor as a quitter and self-promoter. Palin suggested that Begich, who entered the race last fall, months before Palin, and is from a family of prominent Democrats, was a “plant” siphoning votes from her. The two nonetheless encouraged a “rank the red” strategy ahead of this month’s election in hopes of recapturing the seat for the GOP. The general election also included a Libertarian who lagged far behind.
Jim Lottsfeldt, a political consultant affiliated with a super PAC that supported Peltola, said the elections to many looked like “easy layups” for Republicans.
Palin, the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee, could have “run away” with them but didn’t seem focused, he said. He cited as missteps Palin's trips outside Alaska, including one to New York days before the general election, and “goofy” events at home, including one put on by a political action committee that was sparsely attended and featured a James Brown tribute performer.
With the losses, Lottsfeldt said, the one-time conservative sensation becomes “sort of old news.”
Republican strategist Brad Todd said Palin “had a lot of the characteristics that President Trump had before President Trump came along. And now there are plenty of imitators of President Trump.” He said that poses a challenge for someone like Palin, who has "a lot more company in her lane than she had 12, 14 years ago.”
“One challenge, and President Trump will have this challenge as well, is if you're going to be the sort of like mercenary sent to fight big battles, you need to win,” Todd said.
But he said the “anti-elite vernacular” common in the Republican party comes naturally to Palin, and two election losses won't “stop her from being a very powerful surrogate for some people if she wants to."
Palin has pledged support since the election for an effort aimed at repealing a system approved by Alaska voters in 2020 that replaced party primaries with open primaries and instituted ranked-choice voting in general elections. This year's elections were the first held under the system, which Palin began railing against before the first votes were cast.
Art Mathias, a leader of the repeal effort, said Palin has a “huge audience” and will be “invaluable” in efforts to advance it.
Palin told reporters on Election Day she wasn’t sure what she would be doing in two years if she lost but said “my heart is in service to Alaskans.” She also said she wanted to talk with members of Congress about what she could do, even outside elected office, “to help ensure that Americans can trust what’s going on in government.”
The comments were similar to those she made in 2009 when she resigned as governor. Palin attributed her decision to step down to public records requests and ethics complaints that she said had become distractions.
Palin, a former mayor of her hometown Wasilla, made a splash in conservative politics after bursting onto the national stage in 2008 with her folksy demeanor and zingy one-liners. She wrote books, hit the speaking circuit, appeared on reality television programs, spent time as a Fox News contributor and formed a political action committee that has since disbanded.
While she largely stayed out of Alaska politics after leaving the governor’s office, Palin was an early supporter of Trump’s 2016 run and made headlines this year with an unsuccessful lawsuit against The New York Times.
In a June interview she bristled at critics suggestions she had left Alaska behind, saying she lives in the state, has raised her kids here and is “so Alaskan” she had recently hit a moose while driving.
Palin has been making videos through Cameo, a site where people can pay for personalized messages from celebrities. Hers are advertised at $199.
Palin revived her 2008 mantra, “Drill, baby, drill,” during the House race in calling for more oil production, and while she and Peltola were friendly, Palin argued the ranked voting system had “produced the travesty of sending a Democrat to Congress to represent Alaska, one of the reddest states in the country.”
Andrew Halcro, a former Republican state lawmaker who ran for governor against Palin and was among the 48 candidates in the House special primary in June, said he doesn’t think Palin “really understood and recognized the high percentage of voters who just don’t like her.” Palin didn’t take steps to win them over or to attract Begich supporters, he added.
Begich was the second candidate eliminated in the general election after the Libertarian. When Begich's 64,392 votes were transferred in the ranked choice voting tabulation process, just over 43,000 went to Palin but about 21,500 of his voters didn't pick a second choice or gave their vote to Peltola, who defeated Palin with 55% of the vote.
But Halcro said he doesn’t see Palin disappearing from the stage.
“My question is, when have people like Palin or Trump ever walked away after they’ve lost? … They’ve just ratcheted up their rhetoric,” he said.