WASILLA, Alaska — About 70 miles up the road from Sarah Palin’s home on Lake Lucille, there’s a propane, gift and souvenir store set behind a snowbank where Mike Carpenter, the owner, will turn on Newsmax, smoke a Winston White and say this about the state’s celebrity former governor: “One way you might describe Sarah Palin is she knows which bathroom to use.”
When she announced her run for Congress on the April 1 filing deadline, he said to himself, “Thank God.”
There were years, Carpenter recalled, when most other people felt that way about Palin here, too. But if this was once Palin Country — “Sarah Palin’s Alaska,” was the name of the reality show — and Palin had the stratospheric poll numbers to back it up, her signature on the state today, as she runs again statewide, has become vanishingly small.
In Wasilla, Palin’s hometown, there is no longer a “Palin Fever” banner hanging at the Mocha Moose. Glenna Edwards, who once designed and sold Palin-inspired bumper stickers at her medical supply store in town, told me, “I’m sorry to tell you, I’m not a supporter anymore.” And at a meeting of local Republicans at the Mat-Su Family Restaurant last weekend, it looked particularly deflating for her. As one of her most credible competitors in the House race, Nick Begich III, joked in front of the room about Palin dancing “in a bear costume singing a song,” Republicans in the audience chuckled along.
One of the modern GOP’s original populists, Palin was once a political sensation. Her vice presidential candidacy in 2008 helped chart a course in the party for Donald Trump, when Trump was still filming “The Celebrity Apprentice.” After resigning from the Alaska governorship in 2009, she’d traveled extensively and become a regular on Fox News.
That version of Sarah Palin would have thundered into a mere congressional race like a “mama grizzly” (her term), easily clearing out any local competition. And she may yet win, purely on name recognition. Yet here, in her own hometown, Republicans were laughing at her.
“She’s not seen around much,” Shelley Hughes, the Republican state Senate majority leader, told me as the meeting at the Mat-Su broke up.
Jay Ramras, a former Republican state lawmaker who owns Pike’s Waterfront Lodge in Fairbanks, had told me the day before in his hotel lobby, “Don’t beat up on Sarah Palin.” But he also said: “She’s perceived a little bit as a carpetbagger in her home state.”
In the race to fill the House seat left vacant by the late Rep. Don Young — a contest that, thanks to Palin’s entry, has suddenly drawn national interest — Palin is the embodiment of several conflicting truths in American politics. In one sense, she is all potential — a celebrity candidate in the age of celebrity candidates; a mere 58 years old at a time when national leadership is contested among people pushing 80. But she’s also heavily encumbered with baggage, a losing candidate at the national level with a long series of tabloidy family dramas and minor scandals.
Here in Alaska, she also personifies the tension between local and national politics, and her candidacy could be a referendum on which matters more. She is deeply unpopular in her home state. The longtime pollster Ivan Moore of Alaska Survey Research last registered her favorability rating, in October, at 31 percent. And yet, she still could win. In a poll commissioned by the conservative website Must Read Alaska, Palin led all other candidates, with 31 percent support. Al Gross, who is running as an independent after his failed Senate race in the state in 2020, was second, with 26 percent, followed by Begich, scion of an Alaska political dynasty, at 21 percent.
And there are 45 more candidates in addition to those. At Pike’s, where a “Captain Don Young” informational sign is posted on the door of Room 329, Young’s preferred room, Ramras shook his head.
“Our state is goofy as shit,” he said.
In one sense, this is a perfect stage for a Sarah Palin comeback. Going from “The Masked Singer” and taping personalized videos on Cameo for $199 a pop to trying this particularly circuslike House race would appear to make all the sense in the world. Begich, a mainstream Republican who has been vacuuming up endorsements from Republicans in the state, comes from one of the most storied Democratic families in Alaska. He’s the grandson of the late Rep. Nick Begich Sr. and nephew of former Sen. Mark Begich. There’s the all-party primary and ranked-choice voting that will be employed in the election, which further scrambles anyone’s certainty. And then there’s Santa Claus.
“I do have name recognition,” Claus, a monk who is a democratic socialist and sits on the North Pole city council, told me.
Jim Minnery, executive director of the Alaska Family Council, called the race “a zoo, with Santa Claus thrown in.” David Pruhs, who has a radio show in Fairbanks and is running for that city’s mayor, predicted it will be a “spectacle.”
“It’s a cluster,” said Max Sumner, a Wasilla homebuilder who was surprised to see Palin herself in the elections office filing paperwork when he went to file his own on April 1. Sumner figured then that “my odds went down greatly, I’d say.” His brother, Jesse Sumner, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough Assembly member, also filed but later withdrew, saying he was “just playing a prank, really” for April Fool’s.
When I asked Jesse Sumner, who has endorsed Begich, about Palin, he said, “Uhhhh.”
“I mean, I don’t know that I know anybody that’s thrilled about it,” he said. “But, I mean, it’s happening.”
And ever since Palin’s announcement, it has been all anybody with an ear for politics has been hearing in Alaska. Last week, after Palin announced her candidacy, Dan Fagan, the conservative talk radio show host in Anchorage, began his show with a chuckle, saying, “All eyes are on Alaska again.” On one hand, he said, Palin’s “got some grit.” But there was a big other hand.
“I think a lot of folks in Alaska are saying, ‘Oh, Lord, there’s always so much drama with her, you know, whether it’s her family in a brawl at a party in the front yard of a home, or you know, there’s the son beating up the dad, or I mean there’s just always something that’s going on that’s drama with them,” Fagan said on the air. “And it’s like ay-ay-ay, we’ve got to go through this again.”
He said, “We know [on] ‘Saturday Night Live,’ you’re going to have Santa Claus debating Sarah Palin. It’s going to happen, and it’s going to be, probably, funny.”
Palin had teased a reentry into politics so many times over so many years — for president in 2012 or 2016, for vice president, perhaps, or for U.S. Senate — that even when she hinted at the possibility, almost no one inside Alaska or out believed she was seriously planning to run. To many in her home state, she moved on when she quit the governorship. And they resent her for it still.
Moore said this resentment came up repeatedly in his polling of Palin, and her rivals are counting on being able to stoke it among voters.
At a Begich fundraiser in Fairbanks, Al Allen, who voted for Palin in 2006, said “she was more interested in being a reality TV star than serving Alaskans.”
“Alaska’s for the most part a blue-collar state,” he said. “You’ve got guys who work in oil fields and construction. They don’t necessarily like when you go Hollywood.”
At the same fundraiser, Ralph Seekins, a former state senator who sits on the University of Alaska board of regents, called Palin “a quitter.” And when I met Brett Hill, who builds tactical knives in Palmer, a town near Wasilla, at an outdoors show in Fairbanks the next day, it was Palin’s quitting that he immediately brought up as well.
“Oh, God, I loved her when she was governor, but I was pissed that she left,” said Hill, who recalled that Palin once wrote his wife a check for $3 for cotton candy for her daughter at a fair. “Alaskans don’t quit on anything … She got sucked in by the glamor of all that Washington, D.C., bullshit, in my opinion.”
Hill couldn’t believe he was even talking about her now. “I just feel like it’s been so long, I don’t know if she’s relevant anymore.”
There are signs Palin is off to a less-than-blistering start. Even after she announced her campaign, she was still assembling a team. She told the Anchorage Daily News last week that she had raised about $100,000 in nearly a week of campaigning. A Gross adviser told me that Gross raised five times that much off Palin’s announcement in the first 24 hours after she got into the race.
And the contours of a ranked-choice vote do not necessarily appear favorable to her. The last time Palin appeared on a ballot in Alaska was in 2008, when she shared the presidential ticket with McCain — and McCain carried the state by more than 20 percentage points. But the last time she led a ticket on a ballot in Alaska was in 2006, when she was running for governor. Running against a Democrat, Tony Knowles, that year, she won by a considerably smaller margin — just about 7 percentage points — and did not surpass 50 percent.
That 50 percent threshold is critical in this year’s election because, under Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, the winner will need to gain majority support, either from voters who rank her first, or from others whose top candidates don’t make the cut.
“I think Sarah’s still at the top,” said Joe Miller, the Fairbanks lawyer and tea party favorite who ran an unsuccessful campaign — with Palin’s backing — to unseat Sen. Lisa Murkowski in 2010. “The question is whether or not she can cross the 50 points with her first-place votes and second-place votes from others, and that’s the scary aspect of this.”
He said, “I still think she has a good shot, particularly given Donald Trump’s endorsement.”
Trump endorsed Palin two days after she got into the race, calling her a “wonderful patriot” and “tough and smart.” His voice will likely matter in a state he carried by about 10 percentage points in 2020.
Palin, too, is a Republican celebrity, and it’s possible some Alaskans will be more familiar with her as a Fox News personality than as governor, an office she left more than a decade ago.
Kate Johnson, who was eating breakfast with her 6-year-old son, Bryce, at a restaurant in Fairbanks when I ran into her one recent morning, said her family moved from Colorado to Alaska three years ago because they were frustrated by “all the people from California moving in.” For years, she’d watched Palin on TV from afar and “really liked that she was duty-bound, familywise, she understood what we as a family go through.” And she identified with something more personal, as well. Like her, she said, Palin may “not have said something perfect” every time she spoke, but she resented Palin’s critics for mocking her for it.
The media, Johnson said, “just destroyed her.”
The case for Palin is that every Democratic attack, every unfavorable story in the news media, every challenge from local establishment Republicans could work in her favor — that she’ll draw energy from it, like Trump, and bring more grassroots conservatives to her side. And it’s that people like Begich, when he says Alaska does not need a “lightning rod” in its next House member, are wrong.
Alaska gets one representative in the House, after all. “If you’re only one of 435, it helps to bring the biggest bat you can bring,” said Mead Treadwell, the state’s former Republican lieutenant governor. “And Sarah brings a big bat.”
In Wasilla, Verne Rupright, who was mayor of the city when Palin was governor, told me that Palin, no matter what else, is “going to take camera time from somebody, right?”
“Personally, I’d rather see camera time on her than on Pelosi,” he said. “We only have one congressman, and we have to have someone who’s a lightning rod, in my mind.”
Palin’s campaign did not respond to requests for comment. But Palin did speak last week with the Anchorage Daily News. In an interview, she told the newspaper she has never lived in another state and suggested that incoming fire from establishment politicians was to be expected.
“The establishment machine in the Republican Party is very, very, very small. They have a loud voice. They hold purse strings. They have the media’s ear. But they do not necessarily reflect the will of the people,” Palin told the newspaper. “I’ve never been a part of the Republican establishment.”
It was probably good that Palin talked to the state’s most prominent newspaper. Its readers were beginning to wonder about her. There’s a regular feature in the Anchorage Daily News, not uncommon to local newspapers, titled, “Curious Alaska,” in which the paper’s staff answers questions such as “Why don’t we have billboards in Alaska?” “Are there really a lot more men than women in this state?” and “Why do Alaskans call it a snowmachine instead of a snowmobile?”
Last summer, it tried to answer this question: “What’s Sarah Palin up to these days?”
The takeaway: “Thirteen years after her sudden rise to national notoriety, Sarah Palin is simultaneously the most famous Alaskan and nearly invisible within the state.”
“I just think Sarah these days is not a person to be taken seriously, and I think she’s desperate for the attention she once had,” Pat Dougherty, the former longtime editor of the newspaper, told me after Palin got into the race. “So, this Don Young vacancy opens up and she thinks, ‘I could be a big deal again.’”
Dougherty doesn’t think it’s likely. Palin, he said, has “just been too much of a clown.”
But if clownish behavior was ever a disqualifier for public office, it would not appear to be any longer. And this is a seat in Congress that Palin is seeking — an institution that is hardly refined.
“This is really a question of whether Sarah Palin’s residual celebrity is sufficient to get her elected,” Dougherty said.
“I wouldn’t bet the ranch that she can’t get elected,” he said. “But it just doesn’t feel like it’s in the cards.”
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