Sarah Palin's endorsement of Karen Handel in the Georgia Republican gubernatorial primary runoff Tuesday could provide a cautionary lesson for a the GOP: A mama grizzly protects its cubs without much concern for the damage it's causing.
Ms. Handel has made good use of her induction as one of Ms. Palin's "mama grizzlies." Palin has helped Handel cement her image as an outsider campaigning to slash state spending and combat corruption. Polls have her neck and neck with former Rep. Nathan Deal, a state GOP stalwart.
On one hand, Palin is dramatically affecting the course of conservative women in politics, mixing a new vision of feminism with the insurgent ethic of the "tea party" – unafraid to take on the political establishment on both the right and left.
Yet Handel's Palin-approved "Bring it on!" campaign against the GOP establishment also threatens to expose fissures in the party – most particularly between Palin and possible presidential hopeful Mike Huckabee, who both appear to be carrying out a national proxy war through their endorsements. Mr. Huckabee has backed Mr. Deal in today's primary.
Palin and her endorsement are not the cause of the race's take-no-prisoners nature, says Mary Stuckey, a political scientist at Georgia State University in Atlanta. "But she's an indicator of how people feel about things," she says. "She's more a symptom than a cause, but I think she's a symptom of something real."
Palin's record as queenmaker
Waving her trademark populist, partisan, and patriotic banner, Palin has become an adept and influential endorser. So far this primary season, five of her six gubernatorial endorsees have won their primaries. Her support of Handel shortly before the June primary boosted her into first place and allowed her to raise nearly as much campaign cash as the well-connected Deal.
"Where I think Palin's effect is phenomenal is on the status of women in politics," says Janis Edwards, a University of Alabama communications professor who contributed an essay on Palin to the recently published book, "Identity Politics." [People] have to pay attention to this and acknowledge the extent to which women's progress in politics has been tied to the liberal feminist view, and where Palin's impact is now on capturing and appropriating feminist arguments … that skews the view of women in politics in a different direction."
Visiting Atlanta Monday, Palin said Handel has faced the same attacks from the "good ol' boys" network – i.e., the Republican establishment – that South Carolina state Rep. Nikki Haley faced before capturing the Republican nomination for governor in the Palmetto State. Palin provided Ms. Haley a key boost before the primary.
Palin's strong words came in primary that has gotten surprisingly nasty.
Handel has attacked Deal for leaving the House amid an ethics probe, and she taunted him by saying he needed "to put on his big boy pants" after he complained about negative ads. Deal has counterpunched by criticizing Handel's lack of a college degree and liberal views on homosexuality and abortion.
"This kind of bitterness, makes you wonder how well Republicans are going to be able to rally around whichever candidates wins," says Ms. Stuckey. Democratic candidate Roy Barnes, a former governor, "is certainly not hurt by Republicans burning their house down," she adds.
The plight of establishment candidates
The Georgia race does present a microcosm of issues playing out nationwide. Establishment candidates have fared poorly, with establishment conservatives having to fend off the tea-party allegation that they are Washington insiders and dealmakers who give lip-service about reducing the scope of government while in reality voting for pork barrel spending and bailouts.
For her part, Handel has touched three hot-button topics of the tea party insurgency: slashing state spending, promoting lawmaker ethics, and states taking a stronger role in immigration enforcement – à la the Arizona immigration law.
The race has drawn endorsements from all four potential leading Republican candidates for president in 2012, with Palin and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney endorsing Handel and Mr. Huckabee and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich endorsing Deal.
"It's interesting that national figures decided to come in here, which leads me to believe that those individuals see this contest as having some significance," says Charles Bullock, a political science professor at the University of Georgia in Athens.