Sarah Palin notably absent from gubernatorial races
Sarah Palin stands ready to stump for the Republican gubernatorial candidates running in the two most closely-watched campaigns in the country this fall, but neither seems to want her help.
Less than a month before voters go to the polls, it appears increasingly clear that the former Alaska governor, vice-presidential nominee and conservative favorite will not appear on behalf of either New Jersey’s Chris Christie or Virginia’s Bob McDonnell.
Palin is the only one of the most talked-about potential 2012 presidential candidates who has not yet campaigned for either Republican candidate.
Given her loyal following among many in the party’s grassroots, it’s Palin who could surely draw the largest crowd and perhaps raise the most money for the two candidates—her book, “Going Rogue,” is already the number-one bestseller on Amazon, over a month before it’s even released.
“The governor offered her assistance with both races,” said Palin adviser Meg Stapleton. “The ball is in their court.”
Neither GOP campaign wanted to discuss why they didn’t want Palin in the state—to say so would offend the conservative base that both Christie and McDonnell are counting on, not just to vote for them but to also volunteer time in the crucial final weeks of the election.
Not surprisingly given the political makeup of the two states, only McDonnell’s campaign would offer a nod her way.
“With 26 days left until the election, we do not anticipate Governor Palin campaigning in Virginia at this point,” said McDonnell spokesman Tucker Martin. “She has donated to our campaign, and we appreciate her support of Bob McDonnell, and her historic run as the Republican nominee for vice president.”
Palin’s political action committee gave McDonnell $2,500 this summer.
“No,” is all Christie spokeswoman Maria Comella would say when asked if they had invited Palin.
Pressed as to why, Comella pointed to comments Christie had made earlier this summer about wanting to keep the race focused on New Jersey issues and especially the tenure of Gov. Jon Corzine.
Yet the two Republican candidates have welcomed outside help from GOP luminaries. Potential 2012 rivals Mitt Romney, the former Massachusetts governor, and Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty have been to both states, and McDonnell has also welcomed such conservatives as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal.
Privately, Republicans aides in Virginia and New Jersey fret that a Palin appearance with their candidates could offend swing voters who are turned off by the polarizing Alaskan.
“A prominent rally with Palin could easily send the independents to the Democratic candidates, and at the same time, she could motivate the Democratic Party base to turn out at a higher rate,” explained University of Virginia professor Larry Sabato.
In both states, GOP strategists say that to bring in Palin would merely give Democrats fodder to tie the gubernatorial candidates to the brand of Republican politics with which she’s associated.
“Why would they want to embrace a national message that goes backward as opposed to forward?” asked veteran GOP strategist Chris LaCivita, referring to last year’s presidential campaign. “She could be more of a liability than a positive. That’s not a criticism about her persona, but just the dynamics of these races.”
In New Jersey—where President Obama won by 15 percentage points last year—it’s not even a close call.
“This campaign is about New Jersey and Gov. Corzine’s record of the highest taxes in the nation, the worst unemployment in the region—not about the 2012 presidential race,” said a Christie adviser.
When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele said, during a June visit to the Garden State, that Palin may stump in New Jersey, Christie quickly shot back that it wouldn’t happen.
“I’ve said that I don’t think that’s something that should be necessary here in New Jersey,” Christie said, while standing next to Steele.
It’s slightly more complicated in Virginia, where Palin drew thousands at rallies last fall in the state’s first competitive presidential campaign in decades.
She could fire up Republicans, raise cash for McDonnell and may even help more than hurt in parts of downstate Virginia.
But having lost consecutive governor’s races, both Senate seats and last year’s White House race, the Virginia GOP base isn’t in need of much motivation and her appearance, regardless of where, could have ramifications with the moderate voters that traditionally swing the state’s elections.
“When you have a domineering personality like hers, it just generates such emotions, both positive and negative,” said one GOP strategist. “Look, if Mitt Romney shows up in Virginia Beach, the Virginian-Pilot [newspaper] is covering that. If Sarah Palin shows up there, the damn New York Times is covering it.”
And with McDonnell under attack because of the social conservative views he outlined in a graduate school thesis, the Republican wants to avoid anything that reminds voters of his cultural stances.
“Palin would underline McDonnell’s views on cultural issues—which have caused him enough trouble already,” said Sabato.
Added a Republican strategist who follows state politics: “She would be great in Southern primaries or straw polls, but a death knell in Northern Virginia among smart women.”
And in at least one Southern primary, Palin is very much in demand.
Texas Gov. Rick Perry’s campaign told POLITICO the Alaskan is slated to come to the Lone Star State early next year after she completes her book tour, during the latter part of Perry’s primary against Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison.
Palin, of course, isn’t the first national political figure to rate as too radioactive for certain races or parts of the country.
President Bush and Vice-President Cheney were both kept at a distance by many moderate Republicans, especially as the administration’s popularity waned in the second term. And Democrats running in right-leaning states were cautious about being seen with Bill and Hillary Clinton in the 1990s.
Indeed, then-Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mary Sue Terry went to great lengths in the 1993 Virginia race to shroud a fundraiser with Hillary Clinton.
The June event was held at a private home in Washington, D.C. and closed to the media. Terry and the First Lady never came outside for pictures, even as reporters staked out the house.
But Hillary Clinton eventually went on to become the preferred candidate of some of the same working-class and rural voters in her own presidential campaign that Terry was worried about offending 15 years earlier.
“Time can heal all wounds, even political ones,” said LaCivita.
But LaCivita noted that Palin has done nothing to indicate that she seems interested in running for president or rehabilitating her image among centrist voters.
“I don’t think Palin is ever going to fix her problem,” said veteran Democratic strategist Jim Jordan. “She has created her own image. And she’s just anathema to swing voters and a figure of ridicule.”
Jordan predicted that in much of the country, Palin would become much like Hillary Clinton was in that 1993 race.
“I can’t imagine a year from now that she’s invited to that many places,” he said. “And if she is, she’ll be that classic character where people will try to sneak her in and out for a fundraiser. They’ll do everything they can to avoid being photographed with her.”
As for Clinton’s own political rehabilitation, Jordan noted that the First Lady-turned-senator restored her image in the context of a Democratic primary.
“She only seemed moderate among Democratic voters,” he said.
As for Palin this year, Jordan said: “Her strength is in the intensity of her support, not its breadth. And they have [the base] already lined up.”