Was Sarah Palin just teasing us last night when she let drop on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show that she was considering running for the U.S. Senate next year? Maybe. Palin, as Politico notes today, will generally do or say anything in order to create some buzz in the media. It’s hard to find too many serious political observers who think that four years after she abruptly resigned her post as governor of Alaska, the 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate is willing to do the hard work of running for office rather than just running her mouth on television. Nor would it seem likely that she would put her celebrity status in jeopardy by running the risk of being defeated, either in a primary or in a general election.
But, at least for the sake of argument, let’s take her at her word and say that she really is considering challenging incumbent Democrat Mark Begich in 2014. If so, my advice to her is that she should do it.
Doing so might not be the safest play for preserving her “brand” as a pundit at least in the short term since it would take her off of television and the lecture circuit and possibly bring her career as a bankable personality to a premature end. Nor would it necessarily be what Senate Republicans want to happen since they would probably prefer a less controversial mainstream conservative to be the GOP nominee in a race for what ought to be a winnable seat for the party. But if Palin really wants to have an impact on the future of her party and her country and to revive her flagging popularity and chances for a future presidential run, trying for the Senate in 2014 is the only choice.
After four years as the queen of conservative snark, it’s hard to remember that once upon a time, Palin was one of the bright, young stars of the Republican Party with a hard-won reputation as a fresh, independent voice that was willing to challenge a corrupt state party establishment. That Sarah Palin was not so much an ideologue as she was a doer. Perhaps if John McCain had not listened to those conservative pundits who swooned over Palin’s obvious political talent and good looks and made her his personal Hail Mary play to transform a 2008 presidential election that he was bound to lose anyway, she might now be in the middle of a second successful term as Alaska governor and be one of the GOP’s favorites for 2016. A few more years in Juneau being a good governor and a careful rollout of her national profile in which she could portray herself as conversant on national issues would probably have been the best thing for her career, as well as for her family.
But that was not to be. Palin made a powerful first impression on the country with as brilliant a convention speech as could have been imagined, but soon crashed and burned in national interviews and, unfortunately, became the scapegoat for a poorly run McCain campaign as well as the primary focus for left-wing hate and liberal media bias. In the next year, she ditched her governorship and then proceeded to make a spectacle of herself on reality TV. The worst of it wasn’t so much her poor career choices and the way her family became a tabloid staple. The most dispiriting thing about Palin’s career arc is the way her bitterness at the media and other Republicans became the primary focus of her rhetoric. Rather than going to school on the issues and making herself ready for the next political challenge, she seemed content to become a sideshow for the grass roots, pandering to the worst instincts of her party and often appeared foolish rather than being a thoughtful contributor.
To note this unfortunate descent is not to ignore her still potent ability to generate publicity and draw crowds. Her interventions in some Republican primaries helped conservatives like Ted Cruz and Kelly Ayotte win Senate seats. Her raw political talent and speaking ability is still there even if it is most often used to rail at her enemies rather than to demonstrate thoughtful stands on the issues.
Doing so has kept her admirers happy and preserved her niche as a flame-throwing snark machine of the right. But she has to know that this routine has a limited shelf life. With the GOP now possessed of a deep bench of stars who are potential 2016 candidates, Palin is very much yesterday’s news and has already been eclipsed by people like Cruz and Rand Paul even among her own fan base. As the years go by, her appeal and her celebrity are bound to wane. Sooner or later, if she is to go on being treated–at least by people like Hannity, if few others even in the conservative media–as a big deal, she’s going to have to do something more than talk shows. The 2014 Alaska Senate race may be the best opportunity to do so that she will ever get.
That said, Palin would have to do more than merely throw her hat in the ring to beat Begich. As one poll taken earlier this year made clear, even in Alaska her negative poll ratings are through the roof as much as they are nationally. The fact that a staggering 59 percent of Alaskans view her negatively with only 35 percent seeing her in a positive light might be enough to deter her—or any rational politician—from running. But it’s not as if any of the other likely Republican senatorial candidates look to be doing much better. In particular, the prospect of Tea Party favorite Joe Miller taking another try at the Senate isn’t scaring Begich. Miller beat Lisa Murkowski in a 2010 GOP primary but then lost the general election to her when she ran as an independent, and he isn’t likely to do much better this year. And while Begich has decent poll numbers, he is still a Democrat running in an overwhelmingly Republican state. Moreover, everyone knows that prosecutorial misconduct that helped convict the late Ted Stevens on corruption charges is the only reason Begich is currently sitting in the Senate.
A Senate campaign would put her to the test and even her sternest critics should not assume she would fail this time. It may be that Palin has become too polarizing a political personality to win any election, even in deep red Alaska. But she owes to herself and to her supporters to try. She almost certainly will never be president, but a Senate seat is not beyond her grasp. While I’m far from sure that her contribution to the national debate would be enlightening, it would be entertaining.