Sarah Palin has surprised many supporters with her endorsement of Utah… (J. Scott Applewhire / Associated…)
There’s consternation in Palin Nation.
The former Alaska governor surprised many supporters this week when she endorsed Utah Sen. Orrin Hatch, a political fixture who would seem to represent everything that Palinistas loathe, which can be conveyed in a simple phrase: “the entrenched Washington elite.”
Though she has taken herself out of contention for office, Palin continues to keep herself in the political game as a kind of would-be kingmaker, issuing endorsements in close races between Republicans, not always swaying a race, but almost always generating controversy over how much power she has.
Generally, she has favored tea party-style insurgents over incumbents. In Indiana’s closely watched recent U.S. Senate primary, for instance, she endorsed state treasurer Richard Mourdock in his successful bid against Senate fixture Richard Lugar, promising voters that Mourdock would not “just go along to get along with the vested interests of the permanent political class.”
In Nebraska earlier this month, Palin supported little known underdog Deb Fischer’s bid in the Republican primary for the U.S. Senate. Fischer’s come-from-behind victory stunned the GOP establishment and set off yet another round of debate over Palin’s power. (Democrats and Palin-haters comfort themselves with memories of Palin’s endorsements of U.S. Senate candidates Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, whose losses in 2010 helped Democrats hang on to their majority in the U.S. Senate.)
But every once in a while, Palin zigs when people expect her to zag.
In 2010, she endorsed Terry Branstad over the more conservative tea party candidate, Bob Vander Plaats, for governor of Iowa. Branstad went on to win in a state that would have been deeply important to Palin had she decided to run for president.
This week, she threw another curveball.
Expected by many to support Hatch’s first serious challenger, former Utah State Sen. Dan Liljenquist, Palin instead posted a long defense of Hatch on her Facebook page Wednesday.
“Orrin Hatch is part of the one percent,” wrote Palin. “No, not that one percent you’ve heard about. He’s part of the one percent of national politicians who I think should be re-elected.” Invoking President Reagan’s praise of Hatch as “Mr. Balanced Budget,” Palin cited Hatch’s record as a fiscal conservative, his opposition to “Obamacare” and his support of conservative Supreme Court justices as reasons she supports him.
But those words prompted an outcry from many of her supporters, who left scathing comments on her Facebook page.
“Sorry Sarah,” wrote AnnaMarie Stephens. “Nobody needs to be a Senator for life! We’re just so sick of the same ole, same ole.”
“You have disappointed millions of us, who once appreciated your wisdom,” wrote Steve Hatfield. “Your new-found ‘wisdom’ seems to be more of the cronyism that has kept far too many RINOs in office. No thank you and goodbye.” (RINO is the acronym for the derogatory term “Republican in name only.”
Many wondered why Palin would choose a fusty veteran over a fresh challenger. On Wednesday, the National Review reported that Hatch, after watching the once-unthinkable political demise of his longtime Senate colleague, Lugar, began courting tea party conservatives in general and Palin in particular.
Hatch told the National Review that he has “doggedly” sought Palin’s support for a long time, and that he cultivated a relationship with Palin and her husband, Todd, through handwritten letters and personal phone calls.
Hatch told the conservative publication that he spoke to Palin early Wednesday. “I told her that I love her and her husband,” he said. “She said, ‘We love you, too,' and that she’s here to help.”
A spokeswoman for Hatch’s challenger was not impressed, telling the National Review: “Sarah Palin can do whatever she wants, but this doesn’t affect our race,” says Holly Richardson, Liljenquist’s campaign manager. “Endorsing Orrin Hatch is the antithesis of what she says she represents — breaking up the old guard and bringing change to Washington. But I guess they’re friends.”