It may look like a regular book tour, complete with stops at the Walmart Supercenter in Wausau, Wisconsin, and Barnes & Noble bookstores from Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to Bloomington, Minnesota, and some few choice TV hits on the Today show, CNN, and Fox & Friends.
But when Sarah Palin embarked on her own 15-city swing Tuesday in Easton, Pennsylvania, she plunged herself into the heart of a debate roiling the Republican Party between the moderate establishment on one hand and Tea Party fist-raisers on the other.
Consider just the first few stops. Bethlehem is represented by Rep. Charlie Dent, one of the leaders of the moderate faction of House Republicans who led the charge to broker an end to the government shutdown and who faced a primary challenge from the right in 2012. In Columbus, Ohio, Rep. Pat Tiberi has been targeted for a Tea Party challenge by the conservative blog Red State after receiving a 66 percent lifetime rating from the Club for Growth. And in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a group of Republican business leaders is trying to snatch first-term libertarian Rep. Justin Amash’s seat away from him. The tour continues in Kentucky, where Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell is facing a fierce challenge from Tea Partier Matt Bevin. Then it’s on to Georgia, where a GOP primary for an open Senate seat is turning into a free-for-all that some Republicans fret could open the door to a Democratic takeover. Next is Texas, where John Cornyn, the Senate minority whip, still hasn’t received the backing of Tea Party favorite and fellow Texan Ted Cruz in a seat that the grass roots feel should belong to them.
And as the Palin bus rolls into town, political observers on the ground on wondering if the former governor of Alaska will offer a few kind words, or even a photo-op, for the candidate of their choice. Palin signaled her intentions to continue as a major player in these intraparty battles after the House and Senate reached a deal to reopen the government without defunding the Affordable Care Act. Writing on the website Breitbart.com, she urged her fellow conservatives not to lose faith: “Rest well tonight, for soon we must focus on important House and Senate races. Let’s start with Kentucky—which happens to be awfully close to South Carolina, Tennessee, and Mississippi—from sea to shining sea we will not give up. We’ve only just begun to fight.”
“Her message resonates with the average person,” said Ron Devito, who runs the website US4Palin. “She supports limited government, free markets, low taxes, and our Constitution.”
Devito spoke to The Daily Beast from the parking lot of the Barnes & Noble in Bethlehem, where he had driven from his home in New York City. By early afternoon, he said, 425 numbered wristbands had been given out to purchasers of the former governor’s latest book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, to control the crowd.
“She has come under fire from the establishment of both parties, not just the Democrats. Her own party has treated her worse,” he said, adding that it was refreshing to see Palin take her tour to places like south-central Pennsylvania, where her message hadn’t fully penetrated.
“That is a smart move,” he said. “The Tea Party people already know her message. She needs to get her message out beyond her comfort zone.”
Of course, book tours are planned around population centers of ready book buyers, not politics. And although Palin’s choice of stops does seem curious, it also highlights just how far the Tea Party/establishment divide has spread from a few conservative bastions. Dropping anchor anywhere without finding some kind of intraparty dispute is difficult these days. (Representatives for Palin could not be reached for comment.)
And some dispute remains among political analysts about how much impact Palin’s barnstorming will have in the upcoming round of elections. On MSNBC on Monday, Josh Green, a political correspondent for Bloomberg BusinessWeek, declared: “Sarah Palin is an entertainer. She is not a politician anymore. She is the equivalent of Skid Row or one of those ’80s bands that is out on the state festival circuit with the carnies and the farm animals playing their greatest hits and trying to earn a dollar.”
But Devito said that by his own calculation, Palin endorsees have won more than 60 percent of their races, and she often gets behind candidates who have to battle the establishment to win a primary. She jumped in early, for example, behind such right-wing heroes as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rep. Ted Yoho (R-FL), Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY), and Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC). At the Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington earlier this year, Cruz told the audience, “I would not be in the U.S. Senate today if it were not for Gov. Palin.”
It remains to be seen, however, whether she still has the influence she did in cycles past. Although observers will be watching closely, no endorsements appear to be in the offing, and Palin isn’t slated to speak on her book tour, merely to sign books. Plus, her gig as a regular contributor to Fox News has come to an end, and although she seems to have had more second acts than any pol could ever hope for, Palin will have been out of electoral politics for five years by the time the 2014 elections roll around, a lifetime in political terms.
“This is a product in search of reinvention,” said Matt Towery, an Atlanta-based Republican political consultant. “I am not putting her down, but she is not the new new thing anymore, and so I think she has to decide what her place in the GOP galaxy is, and I am not sure that has been decided, either by her or by anyone else.”
Towery pointed out that Palin’s political options are limited at the moment, unless she embarks on an unlikely run for Senate in Alaska or an even more unlikely bid for the presidency, so she will necessarily have to figure out how to manage her time in the political wilderness. Palin’s best use at the moment, he suggested, could be to give conservative “cover” to a candidate struggling to make inroads with the base. In Georgia at least, where the former governor is set to appear November 15 and where a heated GOP Senate primary campaign is under way, she is unlikely to have much of an impact as the establishment tries to fend off a host of Tea Party challengers for an open seat, he added.
“I don’t think Sarah Palin is looking for a fight,” he said. “I think she is trying to advance a conservative cause and not destroy herself as a product.”
In Kentucky, however, a top Tea Party organizer said he hoped Palin would use her appearance in Fort Campbell later this month to boost the insurgent Bevin in his campaign against McConnell.
“We would welcome it. She is well thought of in Kentucky,” said Scott Hofstra, a spokesman for United Kentucky Tea Party. “She is not afraid to tell it like it is. She is not afraid to take on the Republican old guard when they are wrong. People in Kentucky want someone who can stand up to the establishment.”
Palin has been using the occasion of her book release to sling barbs at her enemies and those she deems harmful to the republic—or to the Republican Party. On Today, she knocked the Obama administration’s struggles to get the HealthCare.gov website up and running: “This broken website, I think, is symbolic of a broken administration. Take over one-sixth of our economy and the socialized medicine that’s being crammed down our throat, that’s what’s broken.” She also lamented “the statism, this collective socialized medicine program that we’re being led into” and on CNN discussed Chris Christie’s “extreme” (read: overweight) appearance.
The book Palin is ostensibly promoting, Good Tidings and Great Joy, is about, as she said on Today, the “need to protect the heart of Christmas and not let an angry atheist armed with an attorney, a Scrooge, tell us that we can’t celebrate traditional faith in America.”
And so, it seems, the tour should not be read as being concerned solely with electoral politics. Wausau, Wisconsin, is not only represented by Sean Duffy, a Tea Party hero whom Palin endorsed in 2012 and who has come under withering attack for his own role in the shutdown, but its school district also canceled a Christmas concert out of concerns that students were set to sing too many Christian songs.