Pop quiz: Which of the following Republican primary candidates is Sarah Palin most likely to endorse?
(A) A solid conservative with the backing of local Tea Party groups and a track record of supporting limited government and lower taxes;
(B) A pro-life woman;
(C) Anyone remotely connected to John McCain.
If you answered "A," you haven’t been keeping up with Palin’s recent rash of endorsements. Despite her image as the maverick queen of the Tea Party movement, Palin has passed on a number of conservative standard-bearers in favor of candidates with better connections to either McCain, the Republican Party or the Susan B. Anthony List.
Her willingness to choose individuals over issues hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Tea Party faithful.
"The bloom’s off the rose," said Shelby Blakely, a member of the national leadership council of Tea Party Patriots, the nation’s largest such group. "She’s a company girl. She’s a Republican, and not in a good way."
The expectation among many Tea Partiers was that Palin would use her star power to ignite the campaigns of principled but lesser-known conservatives. Even after she endorsed John McCain in his contested primary bid against Tea Party favorite J.D. Hayworth, few were worried, given that she owed McCain for making her his vice-presidential pick in 2008.
Tougher to justify was her May 6 endorsement of Carly Fiorina in the California Republican Senate primary. The race has a proven conservative in state Assemblyman Chuck DeVore, who lacks money and name recognition but has the backing of local Tea Party organizations and Republican Sen. Jim DeMint.
Too bad. Fiorina has the credentials that matter to Palin: She’s a pro-life woman and she served as an advisor to the McCain presidential campaign. Fiorina may have waffled in the past on whether she was a Republican, and did not have voted for most of her adult life, but she says she’s a conservative now, and that’s good enough for Palin. DeVore, meanwhile, spent years in the trenches doing battle with the Democratic legislative majority.
In her announcement, Palin added another caveat: She called Fiorina the "conservative who has the potential to beat California’s liberal senator Barbara Boxer in November." The implication was that Fiorina, with her millions, has a better shot than DeVore of winning the general election against Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer. And it’s probably true–but that’s the sort of calculation that matters to the professional election-watchers of National Republican Senatorial Committee, not the political rogues who make up the Tea Party.
Palin veered back into the Tea Party’s corner with her backing of Rand Paul in the Kentucky Republican Senate primary over GOP establishment candidate Trey Grayson. She threw her support behind Nikki Haley, a Tea Party pick who’s also one of Palin’s pro-life "mama grizzlies," in the South Carolina Republican gubernatorial contest. She’s backing former Washington Redskin and Tea Partisan Clint Didier in the Washington Senate primary, although her endorsement came before GOP favorite Dino Rossi entered the race.
But she found herself at odds with Idaho Tea Partiers when she endorsed Vaughn Ward, the GOP establishment pick, over Raul Labrador in the 1st Congressional District primary. A state legislator with a staunchly conservative voting record, Labrador had the backing of Tea Party Boise–but Ward was Nevada state director of the McCain 2008 campaign. Again, Palin’s debt to McCain trumped all other considerations. Labrador went on to defeat Ward in the May 25 primary.
In some ways, Palin remains a political maverick, only now it’s because nobody can predict which candidate she’ll endorse next. The more she strays from her base, however, the less valuable her support becomes.
As Blakely puts it, "If you keep endorsing the wrong people, after a while nobody’s going to pay attention."