http://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/sarah-palin-soldiers-on-as-a-diminished-figure-in-the-republican-party/2014/04/28/e7a8ab9a-ce6b-11e3-b812-0c92213941f4_story.htmlSarah Palin soldiers on as a diminished figure in the Republican Party
By Robert Costa, Monday, April 28, 4:56 AM E-mail the writer
CLIVE, Iowa — Inspired by the possibility of a Sarah Palin presidential run, Peter Singleton moved to this suburban community from California in November 2010 and booked an extended stay at the Days Inn on 114th Street. Palin was a tea party queen-maker at the time, and true believers like Singleton could sense a bid for the White House. For the next 10 months, he traversed his adopted state on her behalf, rallying Iowans to the cause.
But there would be no second political act for Palin, and these days many followers like Singleton have moved on. He said Friday at an ice cream social at nearby Faith Baptist Bible College that he still admires the former Alaska governor and follows her on Facebook, but, politically, she holds little sway over him. Singleton didn’t even bother to attend Palin’s Sunday afternoon speech a short drive from here because he disagreed with her endorsement in Iowa’s Republican Senate primary.
“It’s one of those things,” Singleton said, sticking his hands into the pockets of his leather jacket. “I have great respect for her, but this isn’t about a person, it’s about a set of principles and values.”
Four years after using her unique position to propel a number of conservatives — many previously unknown and not favored by party leaders — in the tea party wave of 2010, Palin is today a diminished figure in the Republican Party. Even as she travels to Iowa and elsewhere to bolster her handpicked candidates, her influence in these midterm elections has been eclipsed by a new class of stars and her circle has narrowed, with a handful of aides guiding her and a few allies in Washington beyond a group of backbench troublemakers in Congress.
When Palin took the stage at the Hy-Vee Conference Center under a banner that read “Heels On, Gloves Off” on Sunday at an event for Senate candidate Joni Ernst, the ballroom was half-full, with a couple hundred attendees scattered in clumps. Three people held signs and, while Palin was received warmly, only about 50 people stayed after to shake her hand on the rope line as Shania Twain’s “She’s Not Just a Pretty Face” blared from the speakers.
Craig Robinson, a former political director for the Iowa GOP, said that it was Palin’s smallest in-state crowd ever. Organizers blamed the heavy rainfall.
“We’re going to do everything we can to help and hopefully not hurt her campaign,” Palin said at the start of her introduction of Ernst, bouncing between criticism of the news media, the president and Republican leaders. In between her barbs, she sprinkled in praise for Iowa, calling it “so Americana.”
So far this cycle, Palin has endorsed more than a dozen candidates, with mixed results. This month, Lizbeth Benacquisto, whom Palin backed ahead of a special House GOP primary in Florida, was defeated. A month earlier, Katrina Pierson, a tea-party activist running against Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), also lost a House primary, despite Palin hailing her as a “feisty fighter for freedom.”
“She has some pull with the base, but it has fallen a little bit,” said conservative blogger Erick Erickson, who was also at the reception Friday after moderating a Senate primary forum. During the debate, Ernst, a state senator who sits near the top of the polls, only once mentioned the GOP’s 2008 vice-presidential nominee.
The Pierson endorsement is case study in how Palin’s political team operates, working less like a business or a highly coordinated political action committee and more like a band of outsiders who come together from time to time.
Pierson asked Palin for an endorsement in late 2013, after approaching Palin at a book signing in Dallas. Then she sent a letter reiterating her desire for Palin’s help. “Right before early voting, I wrote another letter, mom to mom,” she recalls. Within a day, Palin got back to her with an endorsement.
But after Palin gave Pierson a glowing post of approval on her Facebook page, which has more than 4 million “likes,” questions immediately arose about whether Palin and her advisers had done enough due diligence on Pierson, who was arrested for shoplifting in 1997. Like Palin, Sessions has a son with Down syndrome and is an advocate for children with disabilities.
E-mails flew around Palin’s community of followers and associates, rarely if ever criticizing her directly — open dissent in the ranks is rare — but curious about how it came about. The same goes for the Ernst endorsement: Singleton and others in the Iowa grass roots could not believe she passed on their Senate candidate, goateed former talk-radio host Sam Clovis. Ernst, who has also been endorsed by Mitt Romney, is widely seen as an establishment favorite.
Tim Crawford, SarahPAC’s treasurer and a Palin confidant, defended Palin’s decision-making, saying that although she does not issue a questionnaire to those who ask for her assistance or have a litmus test, she does vet candidates.
“Her mission is to elect conservatives, and she is pretty simpatico with the people she supports,” he said. “Electing more conservative women is important to her and part of that mission.”
Aside from Crawford, Palin is advised daily by a tightknit group led by Jason Recher, who lives in New Orleans but shadows her on political trips, and Doug McMarlin, who, as with Recher, worked in the George W. Bush administration. Both have been in Palin’s sphere since she was on the Republican ticket. Rebecca Mansour, an erstwhile screenwriter, assists Palin with research and speechwriting.
Protecting the Palin brand remains a paramount concern. Eric Welch, a music-video producer, and former White House photographer Shealeah Craighead have become her exclusive image-makers. Palin’s aides often advise campaigns they are working with that the pair are the only camera-toters who will be granted backstage access.
Palin, who intensely dislikes sit-down tapings and lengthy photo shoots, has made almost all of her official videos montages of her in action, shaking hands and speaking, spliced and mixed by Welch in his Tennessee studio.
Also close to Palin is her husband, Todd, who travels with her, and Stephen Bannon, an executive at Breitbart News Network, a conservative Web site and one of the few outlets outside of Fox News that Palin speaks with. Palin declined to be interviewed for this article.
Karen Handel, a Palin-endorsed Republican running behind in Georgia’s Senate primary next month, said “there is no special process” for getting Palin’s attention, but she said it is critical to develop a personal rapport. “I usually send her notes about the dynamics of my race,” Handel said. “You reach out to her.”
Palin, who splits her time between her homes in Alaska and Arizona, occasionally takes a few days, or even weeks, to get back to candidates and their boosters, but when she does, she is known to be encouraging, particularly with contenders with little money and name-recognition and a distaste for the political class.
An example of Palin’s penchant for finding and getting behind conservative women with back stories echoing her own is Deb Fischer, who was lagging in a 2012 Senate Republican primary in Nebraska when Palin stepped in and threw her weight behind the low-key rancher six days before the election.
“We found an e-mail for Todd and made our pitch,” said Aaron Trost, Fischer’s campaign manager. “Very few people thought we had a chance. Deb had never spoken to her and then we get this shot in the arm.” Fischer went on to win the primary and the general election.
In the first quarter of this year, SarahPAC’s federal election filings show contributions of $56,000 to federal candidates. But with more than $1 million on hand, SarahPAC has yet to dispense of a majority of its funds, most of which come from small-dollar donors.
Recipients of Palin’s largesse include T.W. Shannon, a former state House speaker running in Oklahoma’s GOP Senate primary, Ben Sasse, a former federal official running for Senate in Nebraska, and Chris McDaniel, a Mississippi state senator looking to oust six-term Republican Sen. Thad Cochran in a June 3 primary.
Jordan Russell, an adviser to Cochran, shrugged off Palin’s nod. “We’re happy to have the endorsement of our governor,” he said. “We’ll leave the out of state people to other folks.”
Julianne Ortman, a Republican state senator challenging Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), and Sen. Tim Scott (R-S.C.) round out Palin’s list of endorsements in key Senate races. In the states, she has backed businessman Pete Ricketts, a Nebraska Republican running for governor, Greg Abbott, Texas’s GOP gubernatorial nominee, and Gov. Nikki Haley (R-S.C.), who Palin is partly credited with launching to national prominence in 2010, when she endorsed her during a hotly contested primary.
As some Republicans have watched Palin slip from her perch atop the GOP’s conservative bloc, Democrats have worked to keep her there. In a fundraising letter this weekend, Sen. Mark Begich (D-Alaska), who is up for reelection, ominously warned that Palin could jump into his race at the last minute.
“We need to be prepared for any opponent — especially Palin,” Begich wrote.
On Sunday, after Palin left the rally, Iowa Democratic Party spokesperson Christina Freundlich released a statement knocking Ernst for associating with a “right-wing celebrity” who uses “inflammatory” language.
Longtime conservative hands are also unsettled about the role she is looking to play in a rapidly changing political landscape nearly six years after she first surged to prominence.
Since Palin and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) lost the 2008 presidential election, Palin has stayed in periodic contact with McCain, but she has lost touch with many of the Republicans who were her campaign acquaintances. Fred Malek, a former adviser to Richard Nixon and McCain who once hosted the Palins at his Northern Virginia home, has not spoken to her in months.
“She has never been one to seek out Washington relationships,” he said.
Bill Kristol, the Weekly Standard editor who helped to pluck Palin from obscurity after he met her during one of his magazine’s cruises to Alaska, said he has not spoken with Palin recently, either. “She is now one of many Republican women who have emerged as leaders,” he said.
Other conservatives, champions of Palin since her tumultuous ride as the Republican vice presidential nominee, have continued to tout her as a power, irrespective of her disengagement from the daily political fight — she is busy with her own show, “Amazing America,” on the Sportsman Channel and giving paid speeches through the Washington Speakers Bureau.
Last week, Palin traveled to Oklahoma and Nebraska to attend gatherings for Shannon and Sasse, and she flew to each state with two Republican senators who have become political intimates with her in the past year: Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
With near-constant internal conflicts roiling the GOP, Palin has veered right, siding with Cruz and Lee, who were vocal proponents of last year’s government shutdown and popular figures among the conservatives who read Erickson’s RedState blog and donate to the Heritage Foundation.
In a phone call from Utah, Lee said the plane rides with Palin and Cruz were moments of camaraderie for the trio during which they discussed politics and talked about the state of the GOP, which they view as crippled by its tendency to lurch toward compromises with Democrats on immigration or taxes. “She makes no secret about the way she views the world,” he said.
When Cruz was giving a lengthy speech on the Senate floor last fall about the need to repeal President Obama’s health-care law, Palin sent him a box of caribou jerky from Alaska as sustenance; she did the same for Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) when he filibustered on drone policy.
When she has ventured to Washington, Palin has focused on nurturing her links to Cruz, Lee, and their brethren in the House, such as Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.). During an October trip, Palin went with Cruz to Hill Country, a barbecue restaurant near the White House, and later that day she spoke privately to staffers for Cruz, Lee and other aligned lawmakers, urging them to not be “co-opted” by lobbyists or GOP officials.
Yet, as she grows closer to Cruz and Lee, Palin is finding herself in more of a supporting slot, and her best-attended rallies this year have been with them. “Sarah may have been the Led Zeppelin for conservatives, but Cruz is the Beatles,” said Steve Deace, a conservative talk-radio host based in Iowa.
Todd Palin, who was leaning against an olive-colored wall Sunday as his wife spoke, is not fretting about her political future.
When asked whether she might jump into the 2016 presidential race, four years after crushing the dream of Singleton and those like him, he dipped his head, smiled and softly said, “I don’t know.”