The Campaign Spot

Why Did Sarah Palin’s Preferred Candidates Lose Yesterday?

There’s some buzz that yesterday was a bad day for Sarah Palin, as two of the Republicans she backed lost their primaries.

In the GOP House primary in Colorado’s 3rd district, Palin endorsed retired lawyer Bob McConnell. State lawmaker Scott Tipton beat McConnell, 55.7 percent to 44.3 percent.

First-time candidates are gambles; sometimes you get a Chris Dudley and sometimes you get an Alvin Greene. Having a nice personality, some brains, and the right positions isn’t sufficient. McConnell brought an impressive biography to the race, but campaigning is a skill and money is a resource that is tough to replace. As of July 21, Scott Tipton had raised $380,487 and McConnell had raised $156,917 (including $79,000 of the candidate’s self-financing); the spending gap was $213,054 to $132,341. Tipton ran for this seat in 2006 and won election to the state legislature in 2008; his name ID was significantly higher. Tipton’s ties to the GOP go back deep; he was a delegate for Reagan at the 1976 convention. He brought more practical experience in winning votes to this primary, and in the end, that probably counted for a lot.

Sometimes an endorsement can come too late to do much good; Palin’s endorsement of McConnell came in late July, which should have been enough time to have an impact in this primary.

In Georgia, the results are a bit more surprising, but it’s not like Georgia Republicans overwhelmingly rejected Palin’s choice, Karen Handel. Nathan Deal beat Handel by 2,500 votes out of 578,000 cast.

But Palin appeared at a rally for Handel Monday, an act that ought to pack more punch than an ordinary endorsement. This morning, before Handel conceded, Rep. Jack Kingston argued that Palin inadvertently undermined her own candidate:

. . . in a case like this, really what people were saying — ‘Well, she’s endorsing Karen Handel because she’s a woman.’ [Palin] got up on stage on Monday and said, ‘I’m not doing it because she’s a woman — although she is a sister.’ You know — wink, wink.

“And I understand that. But what it does is, it makes Republicans say, well, maybe we do need to rethink Karen Han — I mean, Sarah Palin, as somebody who does shoot from the hip a little bit too much. Because I think Karen Handel is a very decent candidate, but she’s clearly the more moderate person in the race. . . .”

The polling backs Kingston’s interpretation: “The majority of voters (56 percent) says Nathan Deal is a conservative in his political beliefs. In comparison, only 35 percent of voters say Karen Handel is a conservative, while a significant percentage of voters say she is a moderate (30 percent).” In other words, when a woman who is arguably the nation’s most prominent conservative endorses a candidate who is perceived as the less conservative of the two options, Republicans probably wonder what motivated the endorsement. As Kingston’s comments suggest, if Republicans deem the endorsement to be driven by gender solidarity, they probably dismiss it.

Palin gives the reasons for her endorsements when she makes them. But looking over her list of candidates, it seems easy to argue she has a soft spot for military veterans, women, and candidates who are outsiders or who define themselves in opposition to local party establishments. (“Mavericks,” you might say.) Sometimes those factors are helpful in a GOP primary, oftentimes they’re outweighed by other factors. But obviously a significant number of Palin’s picks are underdogs, sometimes even longshots; Palin is using the power of her endorsement to spotlight second- and third-tier candidates who might otherwise get almost no major media attention: Joe Miller in Alaska’s Senate race, Clint Didier in Washington’s Senate race, Brian Murphy in Maryland’s governor’s race. None of those three is likely to win or come close, but if any do, Palin will be credited for their surprise performances. Palin is “spending” her endorsements on candidates who represent high risk but also high reward.

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