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Sarah Palin’s Identity Problem

Palin’s once unique brand paved the way for similar politicians to find a foothold in the Republican Party. Can she go home again?

John Lamparski/Getty
Sarah Palin leaves court after her defamation case against The New York Times was dismissed, on February 15, in New York City.

On August 29, 2008, Senator John McCain announced Alaska Governor Sarah Palin as his running mate, praising her “grit, integrity, good sense, and fierce devotion to the common good.” Lehman Brothers was just over two weeks away from filing from bankruptcy. The first season of The Celebrity Apprentice, hosted by Donald Trump, had aired only months before.

Nearly 14 years later, Palin announced her candidacy to replace the late Representative Don Young for Alaska’s sole seat in the House of Representatives. “America is at a tipping point,” Palin said. “As I’ve watched the far left destroy the country, I knew I had to step up and join the fight.”

Palin, who famously resigned midway through her term as governor, immediately drew Donald Trump’s support. “Sarah shocked many when she endorsed me very early in 2016, and we won big. Now, it’s my turn,” Trump said in a statement, adding that Palin is “tough and smart and will never back down.”

There’s a clear line from Palin’s 2008 rise to Trump’s in 2016: media-antagonizing populists spurned by political elites who embraced the politics of grievance while drawing large crowds and confounding conventional political wisdom. But Palin’s once unique political brand is now far more mainstream on the right nationally, while at home she faces the daunting task of succeeding a veritable Alaskan institution. In both cases, she faces the unaccustomed challenge of distinguishing herself from a growing pack.

“She pioneered a particular conservative presentation of self. And that’s a pretty crowded space now,” said Steven Teles, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University and co-author of a book about Republican opponents to Trump.

In an era when several House Republicans have associated themselves with white nationalists, promoted conspiracy theories, fundraised off booing the president at the State of the Union, and unspooled stories about their colleagues participating in orgies, it’s unclear whether Palin can still carve a niche for herself within the wing of the party that she helped create.

“There’s no mystery to who she is now,” said Steve Schmidt, who managed McCain’s 2008 campaign, once championed Palin’s vice presidential selection, but has since expressed regret over it and vociferously criticized her. If elected, Palin would join a “freakshow caucus” comprised of firebrands like Representatives Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert, and Madison Cawthorn, Schmidt said. She would be there “to wage war on half the country, to create outrage and grievance,” he added.

The question is whether Alaskans want to add another face to that crowd. Announcing her candidacy, Palin paid homage to the hot-button issues that motivate Republican primary voters, saying the country needed leaders to “combat the left’s socialist, big-government, America-last agenda.” But beyond mentioning how Alaska can “help provide” energy security, she did not say what she would specifically do for the state. Michael Carey, a columnist for The Anchorage Daily News, told The New York Times after Young’s death that Alaskans would want the congressman to be succeeded by “someone who will go to Washington, give the bureaucrats hell and bring home the pork.”

That was an area in which Young excelled. The longest-serving House Republican in history (he represented Alaska for 49 of the 63 years it has been a state), Young was well known for steering federal funds home. The $1.5 trillion omnibus government funding bill President Joe Biden signed last month, for example, included more than $23 million for Alaskan projects. One of Palin’s 2008 talking points, on the other hand, was rejecting federal money to build what she dismissed as a “bridge to nowhere.” (Young had helped secure funding for the bridge, sparking national outrage that led to a temporary ban on earmarks.)

Palin is one of 51 candidates running in the special election to finish Young’s term. The June 11 primary will be Alaska’s first statewide by-mail election, with the top four candidates advancing to a special general election on August 16, where the winner will be chosen by ranked-choice voting. (Making matters more confusing, the all-party primary for a full term in office will also be held that day, with the top four candidates advancing to a ranked-choice vote on November 8—so many candidates, including Palin, will appear in both the special general election and the regular primary.)

Other top candidates in the race include businessman Nick Begich, a Republican from a noted Democratic family (his grandfather, also Nick, held the seat before Young, and his uncle, Mark, was a senator); Al Gross, who unsuccessfully challenged Senator Dan Sullivan in 2020; Tara Sweeney, who worked at the Interior Department under Trump; Republican state Senator Josh Revak, who co-chaired Young’s reelection campaign; and Democratic Anchorage Assemblyman Christopher Constant.*

Palin has name recognition as the former governor and vice presidential nominee. In her decade-plus out of office, she has continued issuing endorsements and appearing regularly on Fox News. In 2020, she was a contestant on the reality show The Masked Singer, and she was in the headlines again just last month when a jury rejected her libel suit against The New York Times.

But while Palin once boasted sky-high approval ratings as governor, a 2018 poll taken after she indicated that she might challenge Senator Lisa Murkowski found that 51 percent of likely Alaska voters viewed her negatively.

Fundamentally, Schmidt said, the elections of representatives like Greene and Cawthorn “represent at a core level a choice from the places that sent them.” Alaskans now face the decision of what kind of representative they want to replace one of their most iconic, and iconoclastic, politicians.

“There’s going to be a lot of opportunity for people in the primary in Alaska to argue against her, by saying, ‘Look, there’s plenty of that nonsense out there. We don’t need any more of that.… We don’t need somebody else who’s going to use our House seat as a platform,’” Teles said. “Don Young didn’t really do that.”

Palin’s political future, in other words, may come down to whether Alaskan voters prefer someone who will dish out red meat or bring home the bacon.

* Due to an editing error, this article originally misstated that Mark Begich had been a governor.