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FiveThirtyEight

Politics

So my column this past Tuesday for the Baltimore Sun was about whether and to what degree former Alaska governor Sarah Palin is an asset or liability to the Republican Party in general, and the Republicans she endorses in specific GOP primary races. The column was prompted by Palin’s conspicuously Heismann Trophy-like treatment of former Republican Gov. Bob Ehrlich with her Facebook-announced endorsement of Ehrlich’s virtual no-name primary opponent, Brian Murphy. A quick excerpt:*:

Mr. Ehrlich is fortunate that Ms. Palin poked her nose into Maryland’s political tent to endorse Mr. Murphy. In doing so, the ex-governor who last year abandoned her post in Juneau became a useful foil for the former governor who would like this year to recapture his post in Annapolis….

Mr. Ehrlich said the snub didn’t matter, but he knows better and ought to be giddy. Ms. Palin would have done far more harm to his candidacy by endorsing him, and if anything she gave Mr. Ehrlich the opportunity to polish his preferred image as a non-ideological pragmatist…

Ms. Palin has done Mr. Ehrlich a great favor. Whatever support he may lose from Palin-loving conservatives during September’s primary will be more than compensated by votes he stands to gain in November from Maryland voters who distrust her.

With some of the highest negative approval ratings of any national politician, the unavoidable truth is that Sarah Palin is more of a curse than a blessing for most Republicans.

A day later, conservative Republican congressman Jack Kingston of Georgia spoke out about Palin’s meddling in GOP primaries. “Why Sarah Palin decided to get in the race is beyond me,” said Kingston, regarding the Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary race in which Palin endorsed a female candidate who eventually lost. “I don’t know why she feels compelled to get into primaries all over the country. But, you know, fortunately Georgia voters are doing their own thinking on things like this….[I]t makes Republicans say, well, maybe we do need to rethink … Sarah Palin, as somebody who does shoot from the hip a little bit too much.”

My criticism of Palin as a liablity to her party tends to proceed from the assumption that Palin’s endorsements will have the effect of helping candidates win primaries who might be too conservative (or simply too unknown or untested) to win in the general election. This was the case in Maryland, where she touted Murphy’s conservative credentials in a very blue state where Ehrlich, the party’s only real statewide figure of substance–former Lt. Gov. Michael Steele is slowly destroying his reputation at home as well nationally–needs to position himself as close to the center as possible. But in the GA case, apparently the woman she endorsed, Karen Handel, was more moderate than the man she lost to, Nathan Deal.

So, on one hand, it would appear that Palin’s impact is not necessarily to balkanize the party between hard right and center-right. But on the other, if Palin in fact drove some Republicans toward Deal, it just means that Palin is a liability no matter the ideological orientation of the candidate whom she chooses to endorse. To be fair, we can’t know with absolute certainty whether and to what degree Palin’s support for a candidate in fact hurts or hurt that candidate, like the Tennessee House candidate (CeCe Heil) she endorsed who lost last week. The evidence in cases like this is always to some degree circumstantial.

And then there is the related matter of Palin’s own ambitions, whatever they may be. Now, perhaps I seriously misunderstand the method behind Palin’s meddling madness, but her behavior looks to me like that of a politician liberated from seeking the Republican presidential nomination, rather than one with her eyes on that prize. Most smart pols avoid making primary endorsements unless the intra-party primary fight is:

(a) uncontested;
(b) features an obvious and safe favorite the whole state and/or county party leadership is backing over a bunch of wannabee cranks and yahoos;
(c) the endorser has some personal connection to a particular candidate; or
(d) the endorsee can do something unique for the endorser [e.g., the endorsee happens to be, say, the governor or state party chair of Iowa].

The Murphy-over-Ehrlich case meets none of these standards, which makes it all the more puzzling to me. Or maybe it makes perfect sense once one assumes that Sarah Palin quite simply is not running for president in 2012–which has been my contention all along. Palin poking her nose into state and local GOP races only reinforces my belief that she won’t run.

Whatever she does in 2012, and however much she is hurting or helping Republican primary candidates this year, one thing is for certain: Jack Kingston isn’t the first Republican Sarah Palin has frustrated, and he damn sure won’t be the last.

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