It is hard to overstate just how much of a jolt to the political system Sarah Palin delivered when she defeated her first fellow Republican 16 years ago.
He was Frank Murkowski, the sitting governor of Alaska and a towering figure in the 49th state. She was a “hockey mom” and the former mayor of a small, working-class town who vowed to stick it to the “good ol’ boys.” That race put her on the map with the national Republican Party and set her on a path that would change her life, and the tenor of American politics for years to come.
Then, Palin was at the vanguard of the dog-whistling, no-apologies political culture that former President Donald Trump now embodies.
Now, having lost her bid for Congress after years out of the spotlight, Palin is a much diminished force.
She was, in many ways, undone by the same political currents she rode to national prominence, first as Sen. John McCain’s vice presidential nominee in 2008 and later as a Tea Party luminary and Fox News star. Along the way, she helped redefine the outer limits of what a politician could say as she made dark insinuations about Barack Obama’s background and false claims about government “death panels” that could deny health care to seniors and people with disabilities.
Now, a generation of Republican stars follows the template she helped create as a hybrid celebrity-politician who relished fighting with elements in her own party as much as fighting with Democrats — none more so than Trump, who watched her closely for years before deciding to run for president himself. He ensured this month that he would remain in the spotlight, announcing another bid for the White House in 2024.
But as the next generation rose up, Palin’s brand of politics no longer seemed as novel or as outrageous. Next to Trump’s lies about a huge conspiracy to deny him a second term or Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene’s casual allusions to political violence, Palin’s provocations more than a decade ago can seem almost quaint.
Palin, 58, started on the road to political fame after her upset victory in the governor’s race in Alaska in 2006, when the Republican Party was in need of a fresh face. Republicans had just lost badly in the midterm elections — what President George W. Bush called a “thumping.” The GOP’s conservative base was angry with party leaders over their support for an immigration reform bill. And the broader public was war-weary after five years of conflict in the Middle East with no end in sight.
Palin was as different from a Bush Republican as they come. She promised to do things as governor that politicians in her party typically didn’t, such as restoring social welfare funding and scrutinizing tax breaks her state gave to large corporations. She appealed to Alaskans’ insularity, too, channeling mistrust of outsiders like oil companies, fisheries and federal agencies.
She prided herself on being able to work across party lines. One Democrat she developed a relationship with in the state Legislature was Mary Peltola, who has now defeated Palin twice — first in a special election over the summer to fill Alaska’s lone congressional seat and now for a full two-year term. Peltola is the first Alaska Native to serve in Congress, and Palin has spoken of her warmly despite their political rivalry.
But Palin had long displayed a willingness to make specious claims that her opponents were untrustworthy because they were different, and to insinuate that those differences stemmed from a lack of patriotism or Christian faith. In her victorious race for mayor of Wasilla in 1996, she brought the country’s culture wars to the steps of City Hall, championing biblical principles and the Second Amendment. She suggested — falsely — that electing her would give Wasilla its “first” Christian mayor. (Her opponent and the incumbent mayor, John C. Stein, was raised Lutheran.)
Palin’s supporters were always drawn to her not just for the battles she picked and the enemies she made — the people she denigrated as “blue bloods” in the GOP leadership and the “lame-stream media” were two favorite targets — but to her ordinariness. She was a working mother who had a young son with Down syndrome, a teenage daughter who got pregnant right when the Palin family was introduced to the nation in 2008 and a son who served in Iraq.
When McCain picked her as his running mate, he told advisers at the time that he knew it was a gamble, and said in characteristically colorful terms that that was what he liked about it. It was a Hail Mary pass that fell short in the end. Palin’s youth and freshness balanced out McCain’s image as an aging, decadeslong denizen of Washington. But her inexperience in national and world affairs made her a liability. She sometimes struggled to answer basic questions such as what newspapers she read.
But to the legions of followers that seemed to grow larger by the day on the campaign trail — at one rally in The Villages retirement community in Florida, 60,000 people turned out to see her speak — the missteps only made her more authentic. And as she became more popular, her language grew sharper and more incendiary.
At one point, with help from McCain campaign speechwriters, she drew widespread condemnation after accusing Obama of “palling around with terrorists,” which many people at the time saw as a barely veiled, racist allegation. (False rumors that Obama was secretly a Muslim had long circulated among conservatives.) Her rallies started to draw angry outbursts from the crowd when she mentioned Obama’s name. People shouted “treason!” and “Obama bin Laden.”
Many wrote off Palin for dead politically after McCain lost and when, a few months later, she resigned as governor. But to many Republicans, especially those outside Washington, she was still the biggest star in the party. She went on to write a bestselling memoir, “Going Rogue,” and signed a contract with Fox News worth $1 million a year.
The reversal of Palin’s political fortunes today means that many of the renegades who modeled themselves after her — and many of her rivals — have outlasted her. Lisa Murkowski, the daughter of the former Alaska governor Palin defeated 16 years ago by more than 30 points, has won her bid for another term to the U.S. Senate. (Murkowski, a Republican, endorsed Peltola, the Democrat who beat Palin on Tuesday.)
Palin, never one to be especially sentimental about public service, often seemed disengaged during what was supposed to be her comeback campaign and revival as a national conservative icon. Although she went into the race with the highest name recognition of any rival and had Trump’s endorsement, she struggled to raise money toward the end.
And she kept a light schedule. In the final days of the election, with little time left to campaign, she was spotted at a Knicks game in New York.