Did midterm elections lift Sarah Palin higher, or not?

Some big Sarah Palin picks – think Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle – lost key races in the midterm elections. But Palin made a lot of new friends in presidential primary states like New Hampshire and South Carolina.

By , Staff writer

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    Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin stumped for Republican Senate candidate Joe Miller (l.) on Oct. 28.
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A day after Election 2010 one thing is clear: Sarah Palin, the moose-hunting former GOP vice-presidential candidate, just raised the stakes for a tea party-flavored 2012 presidential run that, let's face it, could start in a matter of months.

To begin with, Ms. Palin's endorsement win-loss record was 27-15 (with eight races still undecided), coming amid a historic Republican midterm sweep of a kind the party hadn't enjoyed since the 1920s.

Palin, who has become the "mama grizzly" embodiment of the antitax tea party and disaffected independents across the United States, accomplished two key goals with her contribution: She proved that, more than a year out of office, she is perceived as a Reaganesque player in national politics while at the same time laying a groundwork of new friends in suddenly high places.

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But the former Alaska governor also played a role in thwarting a GOP Senate takeover, pretty much hoisting Christine O'Donnell and Sharron Angle past more mainstream Republican primary contenders who may have won on Nov. 2 – possibly giving the GOP a majority. Consequently, Palin's hit-and-miss effect on Election Day has reinvigorated a debate within the GOP about whether a Palin presidential candidacy would work against President Obama, who is all but certain to run, in 2012.

"In terms of Sarah Palin's influence, the picture is mixed," says Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York and editor of Campaigns and Elections magazine. "While Palin's influence in the [2010] general election was actually rather mild, the success that she's had in this election cycle in remaining a player in national politics and having the capacity to mobilize voters across this country still makes her a force to be reckoned with."

Palin's misfires

Magnifying Palin's misfires, two high-profile candidates whom the news media tracked extensively – Ms. O'Donnell and Ms. Angle – lost in the election, in O'Donnell's case by double digits. Dustups like O'Donnell's "I am not a witch" ad and Angle's awkward characterizations of ethnic teens fed into perceptions that a Sarah Palin-inspired tea party is, at its core, fringe and ultimately unlikely to find its way to the White House.

Meanwhile, the race that may reveal the most about Palin's influence remains undecided. The Joe Miller versus Lisa Murkowski Senate race in Alaska hewed to the deeply personal (Palin defeated Ms. Murkowski's father in a gubernatorial election, and then endorsed Mr. Miller). But it also hints at perceptions of Palin among those who've watched her longest, namely Alaskans.

The outcome of the race could tell us what kind of influence Palin has on those who know her best, says Merle Black, a political scientist at Emory University in Atlanta and an expert on the American political right.

The Miller-Murkowski race "may be where [Palin has] had more personal influence or lack of personal influence," says Professor Black. "Angle and O'Donnell had problems above and beyond Sarah Palin's endorsements."

Laying groundwork for 2012?

But the election also made Palin new political friends in early presidential primary spots such as New Hampshire, where she helped Republican Kelly Ayotte win a seat in the Senate, and in South Carolina, where Gov.-elect Nikki Haley owes a debt of gratitude to Palin for her endorsement.

"I think Palin's going to run; I don't think she's going to win," says Mr. Black at Emory.

As of now, at least one survey of Americans would support that conclusion. Two-thirds of registered voters say Palin is unqualified to be president, according to a new ABC News/Washington Post poll. Moreover, Republicans themselves are neatly divided on Palin's presidential prospects, the same poll says, with 47 percent saying she's qualified to be president and 46 percent saying she isn't.

"Come 2012, there’s going to be an enormous appetite among Republican voters for someone who can actually beat Obama in a hard-fought general election campaign," wrote conservative columnist Ross Douthat in The New York Times Wednesday. "[A]nd for all their victories last night, the Tea Parties still haven’t proven that their more polarizing candidates can win the hardest, most-contested and highest-profile races."

Nevertheless, Palin, with her characteristic elbow-to-the-jaw style, somehow managed on Election Night to embody both a cheerleader on the sidelines and a quarterback pondering the line of scrimmage.

"Very clear message to Pres. Obama: we'll send our representatives to DC to stop your fundamental transformation of America. Enough is enough," she tweeted.

Palin herself has been coy about a presidential run and even suggested in a recent ad for her new reality TV show that she'd rather be out kayaking in Alaska than be stuck in some "dumpy old political office."

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