Kingmaker: Why Sarah Palin’s Endorsements Really Are That Big A Deal

Former VP candidate Sarah Palin (R)
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Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin has used her Facebook page and Twitter feed to make high-profile and often winning endorsements in the 2010 cycle. But more than her ‘batting average’ for picking winners — which many commentators have focused on — it’s her ability to totally change the dynamic of a given race that sets her apart not only from current GOP rivals but even most other politicos in recent memory. Whereas others can provide an incremental push to unknowns and incumbents alike, only Palin has demonstrated the ability to pluck a candidate from virtual obscurity and rocket them to political stardom — and, often, to an unexpected win.

The three most prominent examples are Nikki Haley in South Carolina, Karen Handel in Georgia (though she eventually lost her runoff) and Joe Miller in Alaska. Each benefited from national media attention after Palin declared them the better Republican candidate using chirpy verbiage as only she can. Others, such as Carly Fiorina in California and Rick Perry in Texas, were more straightforward, and the candidates were likely to win anyway.

It seemed like Miller was cruisin’ for a bruisin’ on Tuesday, but he’s leading Sen. Lisa Murkowski by 1,668 votes with absentee ballots still outstanding. Palin recorded a last-minute robo-call for him, and the Fairbanks lawyer seems poised to be the nominee. He’s never held office.

This may make Palin the breakout kingmaker for the GOP, with all the weight that could carry come 2012 if she decides to mount a presidential bid. Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (R) makes endorsements all the time and they rarely get much traction in the press (let alone with voters), but when Palin declared that Kelly Ayotte was a strong “Mama Grizzly,” it became an entire hoopla.

Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also endorsed Miller in Alaska, but hardly anyone noticed or credited him with Miller’s surprising come-from-behind (probable) victory — it was all Palin. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney backed Haley in the spring, but Palin’s endorsement moved the needle amid allegations from a blogger claiming he’d slept with Haley.

And, after all, it was Palin who waded into the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary where other contenders fear to tread. On July 19 Palin endorsed Kelly Ayotte while Pawlenty and Romney are remaining neutral in the 4-way primary. “Kelly is the strongest commonsense conservative who can win in the fall,” Palin wrote on Facebook.

Palin was also the first to take a gamble on Minnesota gubernatorial nominee Tom Emmer, giving him a boost that allowed him to win over conservatives at the state party convention in May. Pawlenty only endorsed Emmer as his replacement after the convention. And Haley’s backing in the critical early presidential state of South Carolina would likely be a huge boost for Palin come 2012.

And one can’t forget Rand Paul, the GOP nominee in Kentucky who Palin embraced early on over Washington’s favored candidate Trey Grayson. Paul took the Palin endorsement and ran with it, heaping praise on her and gaining tea party attention. The same goes for Sharron Angle, who defeated the strong favorite Sue Lowden earlier this summer thanks in large part to Palin’s endorsement largesse.

Of course, it’s even a little ironic, given that Sen. John McCain elevated Palin to rock star political status by picking her for his running mate in 2008. (Palin also endorsed McCain, who just won his primary on Tuesday.)

As the former governor declared at the Tea Party Nation convention in Nashville this winter, she finds tough primaries to be “beautiful.”

This year, there are going to be tough primaries. And I think that’s good. Competition in these primaries is good. Competition makes us work harder and be more efficient and produce more. I hope you will get out there and work hard for the candidates who reflect your values, your priorities, because despite what the pundits want you to think, contested primaries aren’t civil war. They’re democracy at work and that’s beautiful.

It’s not clear if there’s a method to Palin’s Mama Grizzly strategy, what with Politico reporting earlier this summer that her endorsement came as a shock to Wyoming’s state auditor Rita Meyer. (Meyer lost the gubernatorial primary anyway.) Handel, on the other hand, courted Palin, and the endorsement and subsequent joint rally was a big factor in her prevailing in that competitive primary (though not the runoff election).

According to the Washington Post’s nifty Sarah Palin endorsement tracker, 20 of her favored candidates have won primaries and only 10 have lost so far this cycle. Of her other endorsements, 12 are undecided before an upcoming primary or are general election candidates in the fall elections. As Fox declared in June, she’s “still got it.”

Additional reporting by Megan Carpentier and Eric Kleefeld

[Ed note: this post was edited after publication]

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