Sarah Palin considered running for president in 2012, was “seriously interested” in the office four years later and said she’d run for vice president again “in a heartbeat.” Last year, she teased — and prayed about — a potential U.S. Senate run.
For all that, it nevertheless caught Republicans off guard — including in Palin’s home state — when the former governor of Alaska actually did announce her comeback bid, entering a U.S. House race on Friday.
Palin had been one of the GOP’s original populists — mocked when John McCain made her his running mate in 2008, then relegated to the periphery of conservative politics, unpopular even in her home state. Now, after Donald Trump mainstreamed her brand of outrage, she is running for public office again, testing the limits of a damaged politician’s rehabilitation in a party that looks nothing like the one she belonged to when she first burst onto the national stage.
“There had been speculation, but I was surprised,” said Cynthia Henry, the Republican national committeewoman from Alaska. “She will certainly be a contender. Beyond that … I don’t know how it will be received.”
Henry said, “She hasn’t been active in politics since the run for vice president and her service as governor. She hasn’t been involved, or I haven’t seen her at events.”
In the race to fill the House seat left vacant by the late Rep. Don Young, Palin is no shoo-in. Though she once enjoyed sky-high public approval ratings in Alaska, her reputation deteriorated after she resigned from the governorship in 2009 — a self-inflicted wound from which she has not seemed to recover.
When the longtime Alaska pollster Ivan Moore of Alaska Survey Research tested Palin’s standing with Alaskans in October, he said her favorability rating stood at 31 percent.
“Let’s face it,” Moore said Saturday. “She has been substantively underwater for many, many years now, and it really dates back to when she quit.”
Moore said, “Alaskans weren’t very impressed with that.”
One Republican strategist familiar with the campaign in the state called Palin “certainly the favorite, just because everyone knows her.”
Still, the strategist said, “People still remember her quitting … It’s not a slam dunk.”
The political landscape — in Alaska, like every Republican-leaning state — may be more favorable to Palin’s smash-mouth politics than it was in 2008. Trump, who won Alaska by about 10 percentage points in 2020 — and with whom Palin spoke last week — is now the fulcrum of the GOP. He encouraged her to run for Congress, and if he endorses her — and campaigns for her — it will likely help her with the Republican base.
Palin’s campaign announcement came together so quickly she is still assembling a team, according to a Republican strategist familiar with the effort. But she is being advised by Michael Glassner, a longtime political strategist who was a top aide to Palin on then-Sen. John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2008, according to two Republicans familiar with the campaign. Following McCain’s loss, Glassner went on to become chief of staff to Palin’s political action committee before working for Trump on his presidential campaigns in 2016 and 2020, with his firm today involved with Trump’s Save America PAC.
Even without the Trump association, Palin has near-universal name recognition — in 2020, she appeared on “The Masked Singer” — and the potential to raise significant sums from small-dollar donors online.
“This is the dominant wing of the party in an era she ushered in, in many ways,” said Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist who was a co-founder of the anti-Trump Lincoln Project. “She symbolizes the ascendancy of that movement within the Republican Party.”
Already, Palin’s announcement has reordered the race to succeed Young, who represented Alaska in Congress for 49 years. On Saturday, while campaigning paused for a memorial service for Young in Anchorage, an adviser to Al Gross, who is running for the seat as an independent after his failed Senate race in Alaska in 2020, was preparing a fundraising appeal to send on Sunday with the subject line “Sarah Palin.”
Unlike other “scare emails,” the strategist said, “This is true: Sarah Palin is running for Congress.”
Palin is joining an enormous field, with 51 candidates running to replace Young, including several state lawmakers. But no one else running has Palin’s name, and together with contested U.S. Senate and gubernatorial races in the state, Alaska is poised to draw outsized attention in the midterm campaigns. Even before the House seat opened up, Trump and his allies had been heavily involved in Alaska, with the former president — and state party leaders — endorsing a primary challenge to GOP Sen. Lisa Murkowski after Murkowski voted to convict Trump following his impeachment trial last year.
It’s unclear what effect, if any, Palin’s candidacy may have on the Senate race. But Murkowski appears likely to benefit from running not in a closed primary, but in an all-party primary in the state — in which the top four finishers advance to the general election. If Palin successfully energizes Trump-aligned Republicans to turn out in greater numbers, it could damage Murkowski and help her Trump-endorsed opponent, Kelly Tshibaka.
Palin’s harsh denunciations of the media and anti-establishment rhetoric will put her squarely in line with the mainstream of a party that has been made over by Trump.
“I will tell you one thing about Alaska: They do produce iconic politicians. It’s kind of a wild and rough and tumble territory, and you kind of get the same DNA strand in the politicians it produces,” said Sean Walsh, a Republican strategist who worked in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses. “She talks to a lot of people in the West. Probably talks to a lot of people in Maine and New Hampshire, too, out in rural areas.”
What’s more, he said, the media will pay attention. Saturday Night Live, which had a field day with Palin, “must be dancing down the street.”
Of Palin’s announcement, Walsh said, “Everyone’s a winner in this one.”
Daniel Lippman contributed to this report.