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Palin’s Endorsements: More Method Than Madness

Yesterday my esteemed FiveThirtyEight colleague Tom Schaller published a post suggesting that Sarah Palin isn’t doing herself or her party any favors by endorsing candidates in Republican primaries around the country (with the possible exception of accidentally helping candidates whose moderate credentials she indirectly burnishes by endorsing their opponents, like Bobby Ehrlich in Tom’s home state of Maryland).

Since a big chunk of Tom’s argument is based on the testimony of a congressman from my own home state of Georgia, and the results of Tuesday’s gubernatorial runoff there, I feel entitled to dissent, at least in part. You don’t have to agree with Michelle Cottle’s assessment of Palin as a strategic genius to conclude that St. Joan of the Tundra is not just messing around pointlessly.

In an interview, Congressman Jack Kingston implied that Palin was “meddling” in Georgia to the detriment of her endorsee, who was, he complained, “clearly the more moderate person in the race.” Kingston was a supporter of Nathan Deal, who edged Palin’s candidate, Karen Handel, in the runoff, so he’s not exactly objective on the subject. In fact, Palin’s original endorsement of Handel occurred just as she was beginning her ascent from second or third in the primary field to first (the same uncanny timing she showed in South Carolina with her endorsement of Nikki Haley). Her single personal appearance with Handel, the day before the runoff, probably occurred too late to matter much either way, and in any event, Handel’s loss by a couple of thousand votes after more than a year as an underdog doesn’t seem that bad a performance.

As for Handel’s ideology, which is presumably germane to the question of whether Palin knows what she is doing, Kingston is faithfully repeating the Deal campaign’s “liberal” spin on Handel. But for the record, her platform included abolition of the state income tax, a very hard line on immigration, and support for a ban on abortions that displeased Georgia’s right-to-life lobby only because she insisted on rape-and-incest exceptions and wouldn’t support sharp restrictions on IV fertility clinics–hardly raging liberalism. Aside from Palin, Handel was also strongly supported by RedState’s Erick Erickson (a Georgian), whom nobody would describe as a “moderate.”

More generally, it’s important to remember that Palin’s “meddling” in Republican primaries has involved very different levels of activity. In several cases (most famously her last-minute, unsolicited endorsement of Terry Branstad in Iowa) she’s put up a statement on Facebook and left it at that. In a few others (e.g., Carly Fiorina of California, Todd Tiahrt of Kansas) she’s recorded robocalls for endorsees, a very common and low-risk tactic so long as the calls don’t involve negative attacks on other Republicans. Only in five so far has she personally campaigned with “her” candidates: in New Mexico for Susana Martinez (who won), in Idaho for Ward Vaughan (who lost), in South Carolina with Nikki Haley (another win), in Georgia, with Karen Handel (who made a runoff, which she lost by an eyelash), and in Arizona, with the man who made her famous, John McCain (McCain’s primary is on August 24, but he’s heavily favored to win).

It’s also worth remembering that other potential 2012 presidential candidates have heavily engaged in endorsements and robocalls, along some personal campaigning (e.g., Mike Huckabee and Newt Gingrich with Kingston’s candidate Nathan Deal) without raising nearly as many questions about “meddling” as has Palin.

Tom suggests that the only rational factors that would lead Palin to make endorsements in competitive races involve either strategic goals or personal connections, and he’s right, Palin’s endorsement of the obscure Maryland candidate Brian Murphy (or for that matter, of Bob McConnell in Colorado) doesn’t seem to meet those criteria. But that’s not to say that many of her other endorsements don’t make sense on those grounds.

Most obviously, she’s endorsed successful Republican gubernatorial primary candidates in two of the four states that will kick off the 2012 presidential nominating contest (Iowa and South Carolina), and has also endorsed the front-running candidate for U.S. Senate in a third (New Hampshire). Neither the State of Maryland or Bobby Ehrlich is likely to play a major role in 2012, so while her endorsement of Murphy may not help a possible presidential campaign, it probably won’t hurt it, either.

As for “personal connections,” there’s clearly one at play in Arizona. Family issues have also been a factor. According to some reports, her ill-fated involvement in Ward Vaughan’s campaign in Idaho could be attributable to her father, Chuck Heath, who endorsed Vaughan back in 2009 after meeting him during the presidential campaign (Heath also was an early backer of Danny Tarkanian in Nevada, which may well explain why his daughter didn’t jump into that primary and endorse “Mama Grizzly” Sharron Angle or early front-runner Sue Lowdon).

Family aside, I’d argue that the whole “Mama Grizzly” phenomenon is deeply personal to Palin. She’s very invested in the idea that she’s a pioneer for a new breed of conservative women who are shaking up the GOP and politics generally, and her endorsements of Martinez, McGowan, Bledsoe, Fiorina, Haley, Fallin, Heil, Handel and Ayotte all meet that criterion as well.

There may be something else going on with Palin’s career generally that is difficult for those of us who don’t share her ideology to comprehend, but that could be quite real to her: she truly does think of herself and most of her endorsees as, well, “mavericky.” A number of her endorsees, including some of the less likely ones such as Heil and McConnell, but also bigger names like Haley and Handel, have been candidates with unusual backgrounds who were struggling to raise the money necessary to become or remain competitive candidates. For all her disdain for the “lamestream media,” the one thing Sarah Palin knows she can offer, instantly, is free media attention.

And to get back to Jack Kingston’s characterization of Palin’s “meddling” in Georgia, that’s exactly what she offered Karen Handel, a “Mama Grizzly” whose message as a “conservative reformer” was, from Palin’s point of view, a “mavericky” assault on the good ol’ boys of the Georgia GOP, and who was struggling to keep up with John Oxendine, Eric Johnson and Nathan Deal on the fundraising trail. These are all qualities that made her campaign remarkably similar to that of Nikki Haley in next-door South Carolina, who never raised a lot of money and was ultimately lifted to a big primary and runoff victory by clumsy sexual and ethnic allegations that made every other factor, including Palin, largely irrelevant.

I still don’t know what business Sarah Palin has endorsing Brian Murphy. But describing her general pattern of endorsements in the midterms as irrational or counterproductive strikes me as far too sweeping a generalization. I invite Tom to retreat to a more natural posture of disagreement with Jack Kingston.