The End of Palin as Kingmaker

In early May, Todd Palin showed up at Joe Miller's first major fundraiser as a Senate candidate. A month later, Sarah Palin endorsed the challenger to incumbent Lisa Murkowski in typical fashion, on Facebook. She called Miller a "Commonsense Constitutional Conservative" and praised his true Alaskan values. Palin also insinuated that Murkowski was a corrupt abortion-loving hippie, all after wondering why anyone would imagine there was "bad blood" between them.

A square-off between the state's former first family and the popular senior Alaskan senator should have seriously altered the dynamics of the primary race. That is, if anyone in Alaska cared.

As Sarah Palin works to become nearly ubiquitous in the Lower 48, many of her former supporters in Alaska are trying just as hard to forget her. Should Joe Miller lose the primary today, hardly anyone in Alaska will be surprised that Palin's chosen candidate did poorly. Palin's influence in the state started to slip when she agreed to be John McCain's running mate in August 2008, and it only eroded further when she resigned as governor last July. Now, Palin is mostly a reality TV personality in the very state she's always gushing about. The Washington Post may track her every endorsement, but this summer the Anchorage Daily News published more items on bears and caribou (45) than it did on Palin and her family (39). If Alaskans aren't paying attention to her, why should anybody else?

A Palin endorsement in Alaska mattered two years ago. Last election cycle, she backed then-Lt. Gov. Sean Parnell in the House race against Rep. Don Young, and he expected to skate to victory on the support. The endorsement helped a great deal, but not enough: He was up by as much as 30 points over eternal incumbent Rep. Don Young in April, but he frittered away his lead by running an ineffectual campaign. Parnell continued on as lieutenant governor until Palin passed her office on to him last year. Now, he's up for re-election, and Palin hasn't given him her seal of approval despite her involvement in gubernatorial races in states like Wyoming, South Carolina, and Maryland. That's not because she isn't willing to help the campaign, though.

"Governor Palin has generously offered to help the Parnell campaign in any way, and we appreciate her support," wrote campaign manager Michelle Toohey in an e-mail. "Governors Parnell and Palin have always shared a common conservative philosophy, and as they are two different individuals, they each use their own style when it comes to governing."

Friendly distance was probably the right tack. Parnell is expected to breeze into re-election with 60 percent of the vote. "I think that he probably might have viewed it as a courtesy not to have her push and promote him," says Stephen Taufen, a former Palin backer and a fisheries activist. "I'm glad that she stayed away from his entire campaign."

Bill Walker, another Republican candidate for governor, isn't seeking out Palin's support, either.

"He's focused on the future," says Taylor Bickford, Walker's campaign manager, when asked about Palin. Bickford adds that his candidate has not asked for an endorsement but that he is curious to see how other campaigns are handling Palin.

The Miller team, though, sees Palin's support as one of their most powerful weapons. "An endorsement from her is kind of like a Good Housekeeping seal of approval," says Randy DeSoto, his spokesperson. It put Miller "on the national map."

The endorsement did little to improve Joe Miller's standing in Alaska, though. Embarrassingly, Murkowski didn't even mention his name -- or Palin's -- in her response. Palin's backing also didn't help Miller bridge the impossible funding chasm: Even with additional Tea Party promotion, he was able to pull together just $283,000 to try to compete with Lisa Murkowski's multimillion-dollar war chest. Most important, it didn't boost his popularity. One month ago, he was 32 points behind. This month, the only indication that he was closing the gap came from a suspect, untraceable poll sponsored by the Tea Party Express.

Palin herself isn't polling terribly well in the state these days. In her first year as governor, her approval rating hit 93 percent, according to Dittman Research. Now the same company is measuring her unfavorables at 52 percent, with almost a third of the state expressing strong dislike for Palin in April. A July poll by Ivan Moore reached similar conclusions. While Palin still has her base, Alaska is hardly Palin Land.

Rhonda Maker, for example, could be a model Mama Grizzly. She describes herself as an "Alaska business owner and mother of two." She lives in the southwestern town of Kodiak and worked in the fishing industry for over a decade before opening up a hostel. She believes in supporting female candidates, and like most Alaskans, she doesn't have a party affiliation. When Palin ran for governor against Lisa's father, Frank Murkowski, in 2006, Maker was such a staunch supporter that she made Palin a pair of earrings -- red and black crystal dangles to match the candidate's wardrobe. Maker's feelings have changed.

"We don't all think that her using her clout in our state to make millions of dollars is a positive thing for Alaska," she adds. "And I do not like in any way, shape, or form, her acting like a representative for me or my state in any capacity. She doesn't represent me."

If she doesn't represent Alaska, it's become abundantly obvious that she doesn't represent the views of many other states, either. At the start of primary season, Palin had a bit of a run with her endorsements, often backing the clear favorite or the candidate with the most momentum. Now, her strategy seems to be shot. This August, all of her picks have thus far lost their primaries save for Tom Emmer, who was uncontested and who trails behind the Democratic challenger he'll face in November.

In Washington state, Palin endorsee Clint Didier suffered a landslide defeat. In Wyoming and Georgia, Palin's backing didn't bring Rita Meyer or Karen Handel, respectively, over the edge. Over half of New Hampshire's voters are less likely to support a Palin-approved candidate, according to a study done by Public Policy Polling. Two weeks ago, Rep. Jack Kingston of Georgia suggested that she butt out of other states' affairs.

Today Miller could be added to that list of those embarrassments, and there may be some fretting about Sarah Palin's status as a GOP star. And perhaps -- just perhaps -- those fascinated by her will start to realize what many Alaskans have long figured out: These days, the former governor is more ringmaster than kingmaker.

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