The media is rife with stories about former Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin saying she is considering challenging first-term Sen. Mark Begich (D-AK), and now the incumbent himself is sharply rebuking her proposed effort. But the most interesting aside, casually skipped over by Begich and most analysts, is her leaving the door open to running as an Independent.
Ms. Palin has been relatively quiet in the past few months, to the point where Mr. Begich is now repeatedly questioning whether she is even an Alaska resident when asked about her potential candidacy. But when appearing on Sean Hannity’s program last week, the former Alaska Governor confirmed that she is, in fact, contemplating a Senatorial run.
“I, along with anybody, would have to say that I would do whatever I could to help,” Ms. Palin told Hannity. “And if [running for Senate] was part of that help, then it would have to be considered.”
She further made some rather stunning comments about possibly bypassing the Republican primary. Indicating that leaving the GOP would not be her “first choice," Palin went on to say that, “...the Republican Party is the party of Lincoln and Reagan, and the planks in the platform are right for this country. I stand strong on those planks. I just wish that more of our leadership, the movers and shakers within the party, would stand strong on those planks with the rest of us. … It tempts one to believe that if they in the party abandon us, we have no other choice.”
A Palin Independent play actually makes a great deal of sense. First, the Republicans already have a credible announced candidate in the person of Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell. Also, 2010 Senatorial nominee Joe Miller, who denied Sen. Lisa Murkowski renomination from the GOP, is running again as well. Palin endorsed Miller in the Murkowski race and now even Begich is talking up the former nominee as being a “new and improved” candidate. The Senator obviously hopes Miller upsets Treadwell so he will have an easier run in the general election. Obviously, a Palin candidacy makes his road to re-election anything but easy and calm, hence Begich is bristling at the thought of her running.
Therefore, Palin entering the race as a Republican would create a difficult late August primary contest with a bruised and bloodied victor having only ten weeks to tackle Begich. Such a battle helps no one but the Democratic incumbent.
On the other hand, going directly to the General Election and creating a three-way race would avoid Palin dishing out and absorbing blows in a nasty primary, while allowing Miller to freshly identify the most conservative of Alaska Republican voters, a resource that would help Palin in a Begich-Treadwell-Palin general election campaign.
In such a three-way general election, Palin reduces her victory plateau from 50 percent to possibly well under 40 percent. This enhances her die-hard base vote and neutralizes her high negatives to some extent because she will have more than a year to campaign, and having two opponents should deflect much of the Palin criticism. Since we know her raising money is no problem regardless of what label she attaches to her name, the former governor will have more than enough time and the financial resources to turn the campaign focus away from her and onto Begich, particularly since the establishment Republicans will have a viable landing zone (Treadwell). Inclined not to favor Palin, this electoral segment would thus be neutralized to a large extent in three-way competition because there would be fewer defections to Begich.
Furthermore, Ms. Palin would also reap several other benefits running as either as an Independent or on an obscure third party line such as the Freedom Party, upon which she recently heaped praise. Such a move would force Begich to fight a two-front war, repelling both her and the Republican nominee. This, of course is a double-edged sword, because Begich’s smaller Democratic base would also go further in a three-way race, but he would likely have to move left to reap the greater base benefits and, under a mid-term election turnout model, that might marginalize him.
Additionally, Palin running as an Independent would preclude her from having to deal with national Republican Party operatives, a group she found unkind during her 2008 national campaign. This means she would be in complete control of her own effort without interference from Washington, something she would relish.
Finally, if victorious within an Independent context, Ms. Palin would be free to begin constructing a new electoral movement from a pulpit within the United States Senate. While clearly remaining a fierce advocate for Alaska interests, particularly relating to energy development, the former vice-presidential nominee as a Senator would again become a national figure...and this time with greater ability to affect change.
We have clearly not heard the last of Sarah Palin in American politics, and her strategically spoken comments about challenging Begich should be taken seriously. From the prism of an independent political free agent with the potential to found an electoral movement, the shift to a different ballot line could well launch her new beginning.
Jim Ellis is a professional election analyst who has worked in national campaign politics and grassroots issue advocacy since 1978. He currently writes and speaks as a member of the PRIsm Information Network.
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