June 24, 2010— -- As the races for November's midterm elections heat up, one Republican who is not on any ticket is stealing the national spotlight: Sarah Palin.
Though she currently holds no political office, the former Alaska governor has emerged as a key player in some of the most contentious races. Her endorsements -- mostly done informally via Facebook and Twitter -- have sparked instant media attention and, in some cases, significantly boosted a candidate's popularity. Several of Palin's previously unknown picks have gained national attention.
Perhaps the candidate who benefited most from Palin's nod in the primaries is California Senate nominee Carly Fiorina, whose campaign credits Palin with changing the game for the former Hewlett-Packard CEO.
"In the primary, one of the important winning factors was defining Carly as a common sense conservative who can beat Barbara Boxer," Julie A. Soderlund, Fiorina's deputy campaign manager for communications, told ABC News. "When we earned her endorsement, we saw support for Carly increase literally overnight."
South Carolina gubernatorial candidate Nikki Haley also heaped praise on Palin for giving her campaign the push it needed. Unlike Haley's other endorsers, which include former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Palin emerged as a key defender of Haley when two other Republicans alleged she had extramarital affairs. Palin also starred in television ads for both Haley and Fiorina.
Palin currently doesn't hold any political office and mostly steers clear of national media, but in an election year where Republican women are dominating ballots across the country, the former Alaska governor has emerged as a key figure specifically supporting female GOP candidates or "mama grizzlies," as she refers to them.
"She still holds this very unique place in Republican politics because of her very quick elevation to this very high role in the Republican party and the level of energy she is able to command," said Kristen Soltis, conservative pollster at The Winston Group. "I do think that in smaller races in particular, by getting someone who has a very devoted core of followers in the conservative movement to come out and lend you support it really can infuse a quick bit of life into a campaign."
Not all of Palin's picks, however, have had the same kind of luck as Fiorina and Haley. Cecile Bledsoe lost the Republican primary for one of the House seats from Arkansas despite getting a shout-out from Palin as "another common sense conservative 'mama grizzly.'"
Some of her papa grizzlies haven't fared well either -- Vaughn Ward lost the Congressional race in Idaho despite being an early favorite and having an upper hand in fundraising; third party candidate Doug Hoffman lost in the New York special election for Congress; and businessman Tim Burns lost in the special election in Pennsylvania to replace the late Rep. John Murtha.
Some Democrats, including Sen. Boxer, D-California, are using Palin's endorsements of their opponents against them, seeing a chance to rile independents skeptical of her views on oil drilling and abortion.
A new NBC News/Wall Street Journal survey released this week shows that only 25 percent of Americans are comfortable with Palin-endorsed candidates, while an overwhelming majority -- 52 percent -- said they had reservations.
Palin's endorsements are "probably equivalent to Oprah's in the short term," but it's too soon to tell how powerful her endorsements have been, said Madeleine May Kunin, Vermont's first female governor and author of "Pearls, Politics, & Power: How Women Can Win and Lead."
"I don't know if its her endorsement as much as her visibility as a different kind of female politician than we've traditionally seen," Kunin told ABC News. "Primaries often are won by people who get dedicated supporters. There's no doubt she has wide appeal but I don't think we've tested yet how wide that is, whether it will pause up to the general election."
Others say endorsements only make a difference when there is a specific block of voters the endorser can bring in.
"The only time that they really make a difference is when they are truly unexpected and someone turns on somebody else," said Republican strategist Alex Vogel. "I don't believe that Governor Palin has a specific block of votes that 'Hey, you get the Palin endorsement,' and there's an extra hundred thousand people who are coming out for you."
Sarah Palin Endorser-In-Chief
The biggest impact Palin's endorsements have had is perhaps on herself, helping to keep her in the spotlight as questions swirl about her future political moves. Every win has helped raise Palin's own profile and established her credibility and influence on voters.
"In a way the biggest impact that she has had has been through these endorsements. She no longer has any real political perch from which to do anything other than as this endorser-in-chief. It allows her to make news that's political," Vogel said.
While Palin's endorsements have probably garnered more attention, Republican heavyweights like Romney, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee have also been quietly making inroads in key campaign states. Pawlenty has established a political action committee to raise money for GOP candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire, important battlegrounds for presidential candidates. Romney and Huckabee have also been building their own brands in national races.
But it's Palin's "non-traditional political operation" that has baffled the Republican establishment -- many times her endorsements don't involve any donations and are announced through social network sites. She also hasn't shied away from "going rogue" against the Republican party.
"She's definitely one of the first people on such a prominent scale to take advantage of new media to push her message," Soltis said. "You really have removed the filter between a public figure and the public with tools like Facebook. It's definitely new. It's a far cry from the traditional image of an endorsement."
Palin is also one of the few GOP leaders who have used endorsements to advance Republican women candidates, and has built a group of supporters around herself in key parts of the country.
This "is another way for her to build a coalition and to differentiate herself from her potential rivals, whether it's for future political office or just for some of the political limelight," Vogel said.
Whether Palin pursues a presidential run in 2012 remains unknown, but she will likely remain in the spotlight and continue to coalesce around women candidates in the November midterm elections.