ANCHORAGE, Alaska – The Matanuska-Susitna Valley, a lush patch of the state where the lakes are fed by glacial meltwater, is where Sarah Palin launched her political career three decades ago. In the heart of the state’s conservative movement, she rose from city council member to small-town mayor, before beating a sitting Republican governor and becoming the GOP nominee for vice president in 2008.
But to construction contractor Jesse Sumner, who was born and raised in the valley and in 2018 was elected to the local borough assembly on a platform of fiscal conservatism and gun rights, that’s all a distant memory overshadowed by what he sees as years of political neglect. Now, as Palin seeks a comeback in a run for Alaska’s only U.S. House seat, she won’t be getting his support.
“I think maybe she left us behind somewhere on the way to fame,” said Sumner, who has supported the candidacy of one of Palin’s opponents since last fall and is not changing his plans. He complained that Palin – who has spent much of the last decade as a right-wing celebrity, bouncing between reality TV, cable news punditry and the Trump movement – hasn’t been involved in Alaska politics since leaving office in 2009.
When she did show up at a Republican fundraiser last year, “everybody was surprised to see her there,” Sumner said.
Such sentiments, which voters and activists across the state shared in recent interviews, loom over Palin’s campaign for an open seat. It’s the first time in five decades that Republican Rep. Don Young, who died last month, won’t be on the ballot. The top four vote-getters in June’s nonpartisan primary will move on to a special election in August under a recently implemented ranked-choice voting system. Nearly 50 candidates have entered the race.
But none are as well-known outside Alaska as Palin, making the race a test of power of national political celebrity in a state where local relationships and reputations have long been crucial. She announced her campaign on April 1, two weeks after Young’s death, filing the paperwork to run minutes before the state’s deadline.
The campaign has also become a barometer of the influence of former president Donald Trump. Years before Trump was elected president, Palin embodied a similar brand of combative politics that fired up far right voters and alarmed many in GOP leadership. She supported him in 2016 and he has endorsed her this year, even as many key Republicans in the state have gone in a different direction.
When asked about Palin’s candidacy, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski (daughter to Frank Murkowski, the governor Palin once defeated) touted the other four dozen candidates and said she couldn’t name the last time she saw Palin in Alaska, because it had been “years.” Murkowski also faces reelection this year, with Trump backing her main rival, Kelly Tshibaka.
Palin’s campaign did not grant requests for an interview with her. The campaign provided a written statement from an unnamed campaign adviser saying Palin “believes that America is at a tipping point and that the hard-working men and women of Alaska deserve a champion in Washington to fight for them against the destructive policies of the far left.” The statement echoed Trump in mentioning “fake news” and disdaining “Washington elites.”
But there are few signs of a detailed policy platform from Palin. Her campaign statement said she wants to help Alaskans “lead the next energy renaissance.” Her campaign website is thin on specifics and, instead, showcases photos of her in fishing bibs, horseback riding, and at Trump rallies. Her Twitter feed touts endorsements from national Republican figures such as former speaker of the house Newt Gingrich and former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley.
Palin may still be crafting her strategy and message with only seven weeks until the primary, but University of Alaska at Fairbanks political science professor Amy Lovecraft said the House campaign is surprisingly quiet in terms of advertising and events. She attributes that to the scramble caused by Young’s sudden death and adapting to the new nonpartisan primary format. Plus, she said, candidates with high name recognition may be biding their time, assuming they will make it through the first round.
“The people who think they have the best shot at Young’s seat may be saving their money for a knockdown, drag-out election later,” Lovecraft said.
The Republican Party state convention starts April 21 in Fairbanks and will focus attention on the upcoming elections. Palin offered to bring musician and right-wing provocateur Ted Nugent to the convention, according to a person with knowledge of the situation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe private talks, but organizers declined her offer, citing a packed schedule. Party regulars say she has not been involved in more than a decade.
Palin’s whereabouts have been cause for speculation in Alaska, especially when she was linked to a property purchase in Arizona after leaving office. She and ex-husband Todd are still listed on tax assessments on their long-held and sprawling Alaskan property, and the campaign said she is a lifelong Alaskan who still lives with her younger son in Wasilla. She has consistently voted in Alaska’s elections, casting absentee ballots in 2020 and 2014, voting records show.
Palin skyrocketed to national fame when she was picked to be then-Sen. John McCain’s running mate in 2008, but after losing, Palin declared herself frustrated at costly and time-consuming legal battles and shocked the state’s political firmament once again by quitting the job of governor less than three years into her term.
She focused instead on building her national brand: lucrative book deals, a Fox News contract that ended in 2015, and appearing in a psychedelic bear costume on “The Masked Singer” rapping to her own version of Sir Mix-a-Lot’s “Baby Got Back.”
The fame came at a cost as her personal life spilled into tabloids with her 2020 divorce from her husband of more than 30 years, repeated arrests of her older son, and her oldest daughter’s appearances on TV shows including MTV’s “Teen Mom OG.”
Palin traveled the country stumping for right-wing candidates, and she sowed some of the seeds that would become Trump’s 2016 movement with her support of the tea party, her dismissal of the “lame stream media” and her false warnings about Obamacare’s “death panels.”
After Young’s death March 18 at the age of 88, dozens of candidates flooded the race to fill the remainder of his term – even Santa Claus (he legally changed his name in 2005), a liberal city councilman from a town called North Pole. One conservative candidate, Nick Begich III, was already challenging Young and lined up endorsements in the Mat-Su Valley months ago – including Sumner’s. Alaska’s biggest influential and wealthy Native-owned corporations are going with another Republican, Tara Sweeney. Yet another Republican, state Sen. Josh Revak, has the endorsement of Young’s widow.
Young had the begrudging respect of some Alaskans who rarely agreed with him but still called on him to help. Anchorage-based Alaska Native artist John Hagen said he felt heard when he reached out to Young’s office, especially when he worked as a fisherman.
“One thing I certainly felt is that the power in that seat was always used to benefit the state of Alaska,” Hagen said.
The statement provided by her campaign adviser said Palin would “be honored to follow in the footsteps of Don Young (understanding he left big shoes to fill!) who served Alaskans with dignity and a commitment to American principles of freedom and liberty.”
On Aug. 16, when Alaska voters will decide the winner of the special election, they will also face a slate of primary candidates for the general election, to decide who holds the seat for the regular two-year term starting in 2023.
While Trump’s endorsement is seen by many Republicans as helpful for Palin, since he won Alaska in 2020 with 53% of the vote, local analysts and activists said it is not as much of an asset as it would be in other states.
Palin’s national political celebrity doesn’t always sit well with local voters, according to Anchorage pollster Ivan Moore, who has tracked her popularity in Alaska for a decade. Moore said in an October poll, his most recent, 56% of respondents had a negative view of Palin, compared with 31% who had a positive impression. Nearly two-thirds of the negatives were “very negative.”
“It’s great having 100% name ID, but when more than half of those people don’t like you, you’re not going to be gathering up much of the vote,” Moore said.
A common refrain he has heard is distain for her decision to quit as governor.
“You talk to people now, they’ll say ‘she quit, she’s a quitter.’ Why would people vote for you again?”
Anchorage voter Marne Eggleston moved to Alaska in 2015 and said she has never felt Palin’s influence in the state.
“The only time I hear about her is on the national stage,” Eggleston said.
Palin’s name did come up, again and again, Eggleston recalled, when she first moved to Alaska and friends asked whether she could see Russia from her house, quoting a line made famous by Tina Fey’s parody of Palin on “Saturday Night Live.”
By then, Eggleston was sick of Palin. She remembers the initial thrill in 2008 of seeing a woman picked as McCain’s running mate.
“Then she started talking,” Eggleston said.
Eggleston said she was so disappointed when Palin struggled to answer basic questions about foreign policy or her reading habits that she voted for Democrat Barack Obama despite being a Republican at the time.
Still, Palin has fans who defend her record and decisions, such as Republican voter Don Chandler, who said he was pleased she got Trump’s endorsement. Chandler lives in Chugiak, 20 miles from downtown Anchorage, and on a recent 25-degree spring afternoon drove to the city sporting a camouflage vest over a sweatshirt with an American flag checkered with guns. He said he works in construction and his wife works in the oil industry, and they liked that Palin’s now ex-husband was a “Sloper,” working on the North Slope oil fields of Alaska.
But the couple isn’t committed to voting for Palin yet.
“I have heard several others that I want to consider, that I want to listen to a little bit more,” said Chandler.
A big question on many voters’ minds remains: What would Sarah Palin do with the seat if she wins it? For decades, it has been a key pipeline for federal dollars and resources, and because it represents all of Alaska, it isn’t gerrymandered to fit a handpicked electorate.
Former Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell, a Republican, recently co-hosted a fundraiser for a competitor to Palin, but he said Palin’s success as both a candidate and member of Congress depends on her ability to convince Alaskans that the attention she attracts benefits them.
“Sarah Palin has the capability to grab the microphone any time she wants, and people will listen. If it’s used effectively, she could be a very powerful congresswoman,” Treadwell said.
Hagen said he worries about Palin’s motives and whether she’s running to help Alaska, for her own interests or to add to the angry discord in Washington. He compares the state’s lone House seat to Alaska’s oil, timber and other natural resources, which have had a history of exploitation by outsiders.
“My concern with Sarah Palin is that it’s just another resource being taken away from Alaska,” he said. “The power would be exported, and not in a way that helps benefit Alaskans.”
Paul Kane and Alice Crites contributed to this report.