In Alaska, a Test of Palin's Influence

Sarah Palin hasn't been too involved in Alaska politics since she was vaulted into the national spotlight as the Republican Party's VP nominee, but at the beginning of June she waded back in: the former governor endorsed a little-known candidate, Joe Miller, in his campaign to unseat Sen. Lisa Murkowski.

Announcing the endorsement in a post to her Facebook page on June 2, Palin praised Miller and took a slap at Sen. Murkowski: "Unfortunately, Lisa Murkowski and much of the political establishment have recently evolved into being a bigger part of the big government problem in Washington, and they've strayed from the principles upon which they had espoused."

Ideologically, her endorsement of Miller makes sense: he's a conservative candidate in the Tea Party mold, while Murkowski is more of a pragmatic moderate, especially on energy and environmental issues, as she's called Alaska "ground zero" for global warming and pressed for action on greenhouse emissions. And her history with Palin is checkered: the two appeared to get along with each other reasonably well while Palin was governor, and Palin's PAC donated money to Lisa Murkowksi's campaign to fight rumors that Palin would challenge Murkowski for her Senate seat, but after Palin resigned her job as governor--which she won by defeating Murkowski's father, Frank, in his GOP election primary--Sen. Murkowski issued a harsh statement accusing Palin of abandoning the state. So there's a bit of history.

Insofar as Palin wants to influence Alaska politics, this is her chance.

There's only one problem: Palin is not popular in the state. An April poll by Alaska firm Dittman Research showed Palin with 46% favorable ratings and 52% unfavorables. Contrast that to Murkowski's popularity, which has been high (Dittman found her at 64% in October), and it's an uphill climb if the election becomes a popularity contest between Palin and Murkowski.

Palin, perhaps unsurprisingly, isn't taking much of a prominent role in Miller's campaign. As of earlier this week, the campaign had scheduled no public appearances or private fundraisers with the former governor. Palin, meanwhile, has traveled to Washington State to meet with and endorse Clint Didier in that state's Senate race.

But Palin does have a circuitous route to influence in Alaska, namely in her relationship with the influential group Tea Party Express, which endorsed Miller about a week after Palin did.

The former governor has a strong relationship with the group: she's spoken at two of its rallies, charging no speaking fee for either, and she's spent some time on the group's tour bus. Republican strategist Sal Russo, who created Tea Party Express and continues to orchestrate its political activities, says he didn't talk to Palin personally about the endorsement, but that the group did "tip her off" that it was going to get involved.

After having spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to help elect Sharron Angle in Nevada, raising her up from a primary candidate who polled at 5% to a real contender, the group plans to spend on Miller's behalf, too. It's been sending out fundraising emails for that effort but hasn't announced any media buys yet.

It's debatable whether Palin will succeed in influencing this race, and it's debatable how badly she really wants to. But if she does, it will be in a roundabout way--drawing from her national prominence and popularity with Tea Partiers--rather than pull she has in her home state.