When the news broke Friday that former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin is running for Congress, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. But, sadly, no. Palin, who burst onto the national scene in 2008 as the GOP’s vice presidential candidate, is once again trying to go from Wasilla to Washington.
Who actually wants Palin in the House of Representatives?
Palin is one of almost 50 candidates running to replace Don Young, who, until his death in March, was Alaska’s lone House member since 1973. It’s a crowded field, but one in which Palin has the dual-edged sword of name recognition on her side. And former President Donald Trump immediately gave her his seal of approval, returning the favor from Palin’s endorsement of him in 2016.
Still, one major question remains: “But why?” Why would Palin want to throw her hat into the ring now, after being mostly out of the spotlight? More importantly, who actually wants Palin in the House of Representatives?
Her fellow Alaskans haven’t exactly been begging her to return to office. Palin, who was sworn in as governor in December 2006, was picked in 2008 by the Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, to be his running mate. Less than a year after the pair lost to Barack Obama and Joe Biden, and with 18 months left in her term, Palin resigned as governor, a baffling decision that left a sour taste in Alaskans’ mouths.
“These days, you can’t find people here who have something nice to say about her last decade in politics,” Julia O’Malley wrote for The Guardian in 2016. “Nobody wants to talk about Palin.”
That’s still the case, according to recent polling out of Alaska. In an October 2021 survey from Alaska Survey Research, only 31 percent of respondents had a positive view of Palin. A full 56 percent had a negative view. She might perform well in a GOP-only primary, given that 53 percent of those Republicans surveyed had a positive view of her. But in 2020, Alaska shifted to a system that will require Palin to be one of the top four vote-getters in June’s primary to appear on the ballot this fall.
If she clears that hurdle and makes it to a general election, she’ll face a ranked-choice voting system, in which voters list candidates in order of preference. The candidates with the least amount of support are knocked out in successive rounds, eventually leaving the winner.
“I don't see how she thinks she's going to get close to winning, particularly under the new RCV rules,” Ivan Moore, the director of Alaska Survey Research, said in an email. When he polled a potential U.S. Senate race involving Palin in the October survey, she was the first to be eliminated, Moore said, adding, “56 percent negatives don't fly.”
A snap poll of around 700 Alaskans from Change Research gave Palin a more decent shot, but in a hypothetical final round against independent Al Gross, the two were locked in a three-way tie against “undecided.” There’s a lot of room to make up ground, but it’s not a surefire win for her.
As for her potential colleagues on the House, I’m not sure they’d be glad to see her on the Hill.
Then there’s her fellow Republicans, who seem taken aback that she’s running. “There had been speculation, but I was surprised,” Cynthia Henry, the Republican national committeewoman from Alaska, told Politico. “She will certainly be a contender. Beyond that … I don’t know how it will be received.”
As for her potential colleagues in the House, I’m not sure they’d be glad to see her on the Hill. There’s a finite amount of attention in this world, and nobody is more desperate to hoard the limited supply than members of the House Republican Caucus. In a place with 400 co-workers, there’s always someone trying to grab attention and headlines, even if that means legislating takes a backseat.
As a known figure, Palin in the House would likely draw a ton of media coverage and interest, even if she’s not actually doing much of anything. The last thing that the GOP would want if they actually managed to reclaim control of the House is yet another backbencher distracting from their agenda (whatever that is).
I have sincere doubts that Palin herself even wants this gig. This is someone who walked away from being an executive and hasn’t had a real boss or had to play on any sort of team for years. It doesn’t feel plausible that she’d easily fold into the House GOP caucus, take orders from Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and ditch her “maverick” populist shtick.
Instead, this whole affair feels more like an effort to recapture the high she’s been chasing ever since McCain tapped her to join his campaign. Take note that she waited until the absolute deadline to announce her candidacy, which she did in such a low-key way that she hadn’t even filmed a video announcement. The only declaration that she's running was a simple press release that, again, could easily have been mistaken for an April Fool’s gag. This is not the behavior of someone enthusiastic about the idea of getting back into public service.
This is not the behavior of someone enthusiastic about the idea of getting back into public service.
Palin had for years floated the idea of running for office, most recently against Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska. But winning isn’t necessarily the goal for Palin. The goal is more likely exposure, brand management, keeping that name recognition high.
Palin got a taste of relevancy again in her defamation case against The New York Times, which despite being thrown out still had her name in national headlines again. Alaskans noticed the shift in her demeanor when she was first put on the national stage, as O’Malley noted in 2016, when she suddenly became a caricature of herself overnight. For her to actually make a comeback, she’ll have to tap back into the authenticity that first won over the state. But that feels unlikely if Palin really is just chasing the spotlight again.
In short, her behavior over the next few months will show just who Palin is running this campaign for: the people of Alaska or Sarah Palin. My money is on the latter.