Palin's Endorsements Still Work With Underdog Candidates

Former Alaska Governor picks winners in GOP contests.

ByBY Shushannah Walshe
May 17, 2012, 11:46 AM

May 17, 2012 -- If you're an upstart Republican running for your life in a primary in the middle of the country and hoping beyond hope to gain traction against the "establishment" candidate, who you gonna call?

Sarah Palin could be the answer.

In 2010, Sarah Palin was the sought-after kingmaker for establishment and upstart candidates alike hoping to get her blessing to help them make it to Washington, D.C.

She had a strong record of endorsements to wins then, but after remaining out of the spotlight after deciding against a presidential run, does she have the same influence two years later? With two wins under her belt so far and a stake in Texas ahead of a primary there next month, could Palin and her ability to help out the underdog be back?

ABC News' political analyst and longtime GOP analyst Matthew Dowd described Palin as the "spark" that can light the fire of certain campaigns.

"Singularly, she doesn't win these races," Dowd said. "But if there is a forest with a bunch of kindling, she puts a match and a light on it. The forest wood had to be dry, but she's a spark."

He also points out her record, which has some high profile wins, such as state rep. Deb Fischer in Nebraska for that state's U.S. senate primary last week. Even some of Palin's losses have been victories of a sort. She backed Christine O'Donnell in the 2010 Delaware U.S. senate race and Sharron Angle for the U.S. senate race in Nevada in 2010. Neither woman won the seat, but they both upended establishment favorites in the primary.

"If I were a long shot taking on an establishment candidate, Sarah Palin is who I would want to come and charge up the race. She would be number one or two on the list," Dowd said. "She has as much ability to charge up the race as a former president."

And while her record is not perfect, she has backed two successful upstarts.

The former Alaska governor backed Richard Mourdock over Dick Lugar in the Indiana U.S. senate primary. But so did many Tea Partiers and other conservatives. He beat the six-term senator by 20 points.

It was more impressive last week when Palin made a late-in-the-game endorsement of rancher and state rep. Deb Fischer. Fischer sailed to victory Tuesday night, defeating both Jon Bruning, considered to be the state party favorite, and Don Stenberg, who had the backing of Tea Party groups.

Fischer was actually seen as more moderate than Bruning and Stenberg, but her message of reform coming from a mom and rancher played right into Palin's mama grizzly profile for endorsees. Palin even recorded robo-calls for her. Fischer will now take on former Nebraska governor and senator back to retake his old seat, Bob Kerrey. Despite his experience, it will be a hard battle in the very red state.

Palin endorsed Fischer not in person, but with a note posted to her 3.3 million Facebook fans, and it noted that Fischer was campaigning largely outside the party establishment and without outside funds, unlike the two other candidates.

"Your efforts remind us of those our family put forth for Sarah's races here in Alaska," read the message from Todd and Sarah Palin. "Winning over voters through personal interactions is the way to go. People are tired of outside interests spending millions of dollars in political attack ads. We're glad to see your grassroots efforts paying off!"

It's impossible to draw a bright line between Palin's endorsement and Fischer's victory. Fischer was the relative unknown in the race and Palin's endorsement, if nothing else, brought some much-needed attention to her campaign. Bruning and Stenberg were in a well-financed mudslinging contest that left Fischer largely unscathed. Bruning was dogged by questionable financial dealings.

And Palin wasn't Fischer's only backer: Former Nebraska governor Kay Orr was an early supporter of Fischer and reportedly helped secure Palin's endorsement.

But what probably had the most influence for Fischer was a late $250,000 ad buy by the Ending Spending Action Fund super PAC, funded by Chicago Cubs co-owner and Ameritrade founder Joe Ricketts. The New York Times reported Thursday that Ricketts is behind a proposal to start a SuperPAC that goes after President Obama in a much more aggressive way than has been done so far, stressing his ties with controversial preacher Jeremiah Wright, something John McCain prohibited in 2008. (Coincidentally, Palin wanted more of a focus on Wright during the campaign, but McCain said no.)

Late Tuesday, Palin congratulated Fischer in a statement that also jabbed at those who thought Fischer didn't have a shot (Rick Santorum and Sen. Jim DeMint endorsed losing candidates), saying she was "not part of the good old boys' permanent political class" but rather one of the "commonsense conservatives .... who are bold enough to step up and run on a conservative platform to restore America and protect our children's future."

But Palin's streak will be on the line in Texas later this month. Just four days before early voting began ahead of the state's May 29 U.S. Senate primary, Palin endorsed Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz. He's taking on a strong, self-financed candidate, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst, who started with better name recognition and is still holding the frontrunner spot. They are running to take the place of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchinson, who is retiring. In red Texas it's likely that whoever wins this primary will head to victory in November. The situation in Texas is different from that in Nebraska. Palin's support for Cruz puts her on the same side as national Tea Party groups like Freedomworks and anti-tax groups like the Club for Growth, which are pouring millions of dollars into the race.

James Bernsen, Cruz's communications director, said right after the Palin endorsement, they received between 900 and 1,000 online donations almost immediately. A huge boon to their campaign.

Going forward, Palin will include Fischer as a notch in her belt, but some Nebraska political watchers doubt Palin's nod did anything to help Fischer. John Hibbing, a political science professor from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, believes it wasn't Palin or any of the endorsements because they just don't matter to Nebraskans.

"I'm skeptical the Palin endorsement in and of itself did anything," Hibbing said, adding he was one who thought just a month ago Fischer did not have a chance.

Instead he believes "it was a series of events," including the superPAC money, which Hibbing said was the first time Fischer went negative and was able to separate herself from Bruning and Stenberg. He also said to pay attention to the timing. The Palins endorsed one week ago.

"Movement in the polls had already taken place," Hibbing said. "There was dissatisfaction with the frontrunner [Bruning], no one really thought anything was wrong with [Fischer], her negatives were extremely low ... she appealed to the Western part of the state, which has a strong element of the Republican Party."

One big endorsement Palin hasn't made: Mitt Romney, of course. Palin clearly preferred Newt Gingrich and voted for him in the Alaska primary, but never technically endorsed him outside of her Fox News hits.

It will be hard for Palin to spin the anti-establishment Mama Grizzly brand she has cultivated into vocal support for the GOP nominee.

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