In Alaska, Sarah Palin’s Political Comeback Stirs Debate Among Voters
WASILLA, Alaska – At one of her hometown’s churches in a mountainous valley in south central Alaska, Sarah Palin’s star has dimmed lately.
In the small town of Wasilla on Sunday, some congregation members who had contributed to her political turnout years ago expressed doubts about supporting her bid for Alaska’s sole congressional seat in Tuesday’s special election and primaries.
“Sarah is conservative, but she seems more attracted to politics than values,” said Scott Johannes, 59, a retired contractor who attends Wasilla Bible Church. He said he was indecisive. “I think her influences now come from out of state,” he said.
But nearby, at another Wasilla church Ms. Palin has attended, Joelle Sanchez, 38, said she still believed Ms. Palin was behind the Alaskans, even though she doesn’t always agree with the sharp personality of the candidate. Ms. Sanchez’s relatives and friends are torn about whether or not to support Ms. Palin’s campaign for Congress, she said.
“I feel like they’re looking at her through a dirty lens,” said Ms. Sanchez, a pastor at Church on The Rock, who looked at Ms. Palin leaned in. “I won’t vote until I’ve done some more research,” she added.
In churches and coffee shops, on conservative airwaves and right-wing social media, Alaska voters have debated Ms. Palin’s motives for staging a political comeback — whether she’s interested in public service or in seeking greater exposure.
Ms. Palin, the former state governor and 2008 vice presidential Republican nominee, took over a hurdle in June when she led a field of 48 candidates in a special primary to fill the seat of former U.S. Representative Don Young, who was elected in June. March died. as he flew home. But she faces the next test on Tuesday in a complex special election that will allow voters to rank their top picks.
Ms Palin’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. In a lengthy interview with The Anchorage Daily News, after announcing her run in April, Ms. Palin disputed the claim that she was not committed to Alaska.
“The establishment machine in the Republican Party is very, very, very small. They have a loud voice. They are holding purses. They have the ear of the media. But they do not necessarily reflect the will of the people.” Mrs. Palin told the paper.
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Interviews with two dozen voters and strategists in Wasilla, Palmer and Anchorage on Saturday and Sunday captured the challenges for Ms. Palin, who won an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump but who polls say in November has a tough hill to climb because of its low approval ratings.
Several voters said Ms. Palin had left Alaska after resigning from the governor’s office in 2009 over ethical complaints and legal bills. But the support of Mrs. Palin remains big among other Republicans, including conservative women who have followed her political rise and seen herself in her struggles as a working mom.
“She’s real, she’s authentic — what you see is what you get,” says TJ DeSpain, 51, an art therapist who attended an outdoor concert in Palmer who said she was drawn to Ms. Palin’s rock-star status. “She looks like Alaska Barbie.”
Ms. Palin faces multiple candidates in the special election to serve the remainder of Mr. Young’s term. They include Mary Peltola, a Democrat who could become the first Alaska Native in Congress, and Nicholas Begich III, the Republican scion of the state’s most prominent Democratic political family. Tara Sweeney, a former Trump administration official, is running as a candidate.
The special election, which will allow voters to rank their picks for the first time, will take place alongside the state’s impartial primaries to fill the House seat from 2023. In that race, voters were asked to choose from a list of 22 candidates from all parties and affiliations, including Ms. Palin.
The new ranking system has confused some Republicans who claim it is weakening their vote. Ms Palin has encouraged supporters to rank her – and she alone.
Establishment Republicans have urged party voters to rate Ms. Palin and Mr. Begich in the top positions, fearing that Ms. Peltola, the Democrat, could pave a path to victory. Should Mr. Begich or Ms. Peltola prevail in the special election, a win for either could give a significant boost to momentum and brand awareness.
In Wasilla and the nearby town of Palmer, several voters still remembered the days when Ms. Palin competed in beauty queen pageants and played on the high school basketball team. Some said they admired how she never seemed to lose her down-to-earth personality, even when her star was on the rise, and how she always seemed willing to strike up a conversation at the local grocery store or Target.
And many had not forgotten 2008, when Mrs. Palin leapt to the national podium as Senator John McCain’s running mate and appeared to take on a new and unrecognizable personality. Her anti-establishment language has since come to define the Republican Party, and other candidates have followed suit.
Some Alaskans see her status as a far-right celebrity as an asset, as do a few callers to “The Mike Porcaro Show,” a conservative talk radio show. They argued that Ms. Palin would be able to draw attention to Alaska in a way that a lesser-known newcomer to Congress would not.
But her fame probably cost her support as well. “Now she likes to be in the spotlight with all these cheeky comments and stuff,” said Jim Jurgeleit, 64, a retired engineer who said he voted for Ms Peltola.
Ms. Palin has mostly been on the reality television circuit and has promoted other out-of-state Republicans since she resigned from the governor’s office. Some claim she spent more time on conservative Newsmax or in the lower 48 states than on the campaign trail. Janet Kincaid, 88, the owner of the Colony Inn in Palmer, once opened her lake house in Wasilla to a $20,000 fundraiser when Ms. Palin ran for governor. Now she preferred to talk about Mr. Begich, for whom she has organized two fundraisers.
“To be honest, I’m a big supporter of Nick Begich,” she said. “I think he would be better for the job.”
On Monday evening, Ms Palin’s former in-laws also organized a fundraiser for Mr Begich at their home in Wasilla. Jim Palin, the father of Ms. Palin’s ex-husband, Todd, declined to comment on Ms. Palin. But when asked why he supported his former daughter-in-law’s rival, he said: “He will stay in that job as long as we want him to be.”
At a vintage car show in downtown Palmer, Richard Johnson showed off his 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix. He said he called Ms. Palin still saw as a reflection of his old-fashioned, conservative values and intended to vote for her. “She’s a quitter,” he added, “but at least she stands for something.”