WASHINGTON — Republican triumphs in the recent U.S. congressional elections have left the party with an ironic dilemma: the woman who played such a key role in igniting their conservative base is also the woman they fear the most.
Sarah Palin — either adored or abhorred in the United States, depending on one’s political perspective — is considered one of the biggest winners following last week’s mid-terms.
The former Alaska governor backed some 60 Tea Party candidates, about half of whom won, while targeting 20 Democrats for certain defeat. Eighteen lost.
And yet in the corridors of power on Capitol Hill, there is a determined and focused effort under way among the Republican elite to find a candidate who can handily beat Palin for the nomination. In recent days, the “Blame Palin” strategy has stepped out from the shadows.
Spencer Bachus, a Republican congressman from Alabama, has pointed to Palin and the Tea Party movement for his party’s failure to capture the U.S. Senate in addition to the House.
“The Senate would be Republican today except for states (in which Palin endorsed candidates) like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware,” Bachus told an Alabama newspaper. “Sarah Palin cost us control of the Senate.”
While Tea Party candidates did well in House races, Bachus added, “they didn’t do very well at all” in their attempts to win Senate seats.
Conservative icon Rush Limbaugh, the radio show host who wields tremendous influence over the party, has been railing against such anti-Palin forces in recent days.
“What’s going on here, folks, is very simple,” said Limbaugh, who’s a big Palin booster.
“They want to establish a lie very firmly in the minds of the public that the Tea Party hurt the Republican party in these elections. They want to use this to stop Sarah Palin. Republican insiders are trying to figure out now how to stop Sarah Palin.”
Why the Palin fears? Republicans fret that if she’s their presidential candidate in 2012, U.S. President Barack Obama will easily dispose of her. Even George W. Bush, the much-maligned former Republican president, has reportedly told associates that Palin is “unqualified” to be commander-in-chief while his one-time chief strategist, Karl Rove, says she lacks the “gravitas” for the job.
Palin doesn’t appear to be paying any mind.
The period after the mid-term elections tend to be when presidential campaigns unofficially begin, and Palin’s Twitter stream moved in a new direction on Monday. The self-styled hockey mom relies on social media like Facebook and Twitter to communicate with the masses.
A recent ABC News-Washington Post poll found that only 27 per cent of registered voters believe Palin’s qualified to be president. Even those who identify themselves as lifelong Republicans are uneasy about her, including some who voted for the party in droves last week — older white men.
“I think she’s a very good lady but I just don’t think we’re ready for her,” Daniel Phillips, 48, a North Carolina Republican businessman, said in a recent interview.
Phillips said he lost respect for Palin when she resigned as Alaska governor last year before serving out her full term.
“When she did that, I think she hurt herself. I think she’s a good cheerleader for the conservative party and the Tea Party movement, but as far as being a serious presidential candidate, no. I just don’t see it.”
Nonetheless, 55 per cent of conservative Republicans like Phillips do believe she’s qualified, the same poll suggested. And a whopping 73 per cent of Tea Party supporters believe she’s got what it takes to be president.
Those making the case that Palin can emerge victorious on a national level often point to 1966, when another figure facing some public antipathy took to the hustings after suffering defeat in a presidential election. Richard Nixon did a campaign swing across the U.S., positioning himself for another presidential run in 1968 after losing to John F. Kennedy in 1960.
Nixon stumped for congressional candidates nationwide, helping to lift the Republican party to a 47-seat gain. When Nixon squared off against Vice President Hubert Humphrey, he had the backing of dozens of Republican senators and congressmen who were grateful for his support.
But one longtime political observer notes that Nixon also had the support of the party elite in 1968, and dominated the Republican primary campaign as one candidate after another dropped out in the face of his superior organization. Palin isn’t likely to face such a cakewalk.
“Like Nixon, her campaigning and endorsements were intended to increase her options for 2012, to have people in Congress who owe her something concrete,” Cal Jillson, political science professor at Southern Methodist University, said Monday.
“To that extent, it worked. But the campaign to make sure that she’s not the candidate is in full force. The people who are called establishment Republicans are determined that she not be their nominee in 2012 even though they’re more than happy to have her out there invigorating the base.”
Palin also delivered a hard-hitting speech in Phoenix that assailed Ben Bernanke, the Federal Reserve Board chairman, by focusing on a primary conservative concern this election cycle: government overspending.
“I’m deeply concerned about the Federal Reserve’s plans to buy up anywhere from $600 billion to as much as $1 trillion of government securities,” Palin said in prepared remarks. “What’s the end game here?… All this pump priming will come at a serious price.”