By Manu Raju, Alex Rogers and Melanie Zanona, CNN
GOP hard-liners already plan to invite her to join their congressional caucus. And House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy said Wednesday he’s a “big fan” of hers.
But some Republicans in Alaska are scoffing.
“We’ve got 50 names that Alaskans will have the opportunity to choose from,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the state’s senior senator, who has long had a frosty relationship with Palin, told CNN in Washington. “A lot of really good qualified individuals that nobody else is talking about back here. Back home, they are. So this is your own kind of bubble. I’m just telling you: You are not in Alaska’s bubble, because Alaskans are talking about the others.”
When was the last time Murkowski saw Palin in Alaska?
“That is a really hard question,” Murkowski said. “Because it’s been years.”
Palin’s decision to jump into the race to replace the late Don Young — who represented the state for nearly 50 years — adds a nationally prominent candidate to a nearly 50-person field. And it reopens old wounds with some Republican critics, who were eager to see the mercurial politician stay away for good after she abruptly resigned as Alaska’s governor in 2009.
Some of her opponents are trying to capitalize on the rift she left behind.
“Many of the people that I know were very surprised because we didn’t realize that she was still a resident of the state,” said Nick Begich III, a Republican rival for the seat and grandson of the late Rep. Nick Begich and nephew of former Democratic Sen. Mark Begich. “Most people haven’t seen her around. I’ve been to hundreds of events over the last several years and have seen her maybe once. And that’s been true of nearly everyone I’ve talked to.”
Palin still has a home in Wasilla, Alaska — the small town where she was first elected to the city council 30 years ago before serving as mayor. She then defeated Murkowski’s father, Frank, in the 2006 governor’s race. After catapulting onto the national stage as GOP presidential nominee Sen. John McCain’s 2008 running mate, she resigned from office three years into her four-year term.
In announcing her resignation, Palin compared herself to a point guard who would selflessly “pass the ball for victory,” and save the state taxpayer money by leaving office early, as a number of ethics complaints were filed against her.
“Many just accept that lame-duck status, hit the road, draw the paycheck and milk it. I’m not putting Alaska through that — I promised efficiencies and effectiveness,” she said at the time.
A Palin campaign adviser touted the former vice presidential candidate’s long ties to the state.
“Sarah Palin would be honored to serve the men and women of Alaska in Washington and continue the legacy of Don Young,” the adviser said. “She’s a lifelong Alaskan since the age of three months old whose youngest son is still a middle schooler in Wasilla.”
But Palin’s Alaska Republican critics say that she hasn’t been involved in the state’s politics for years, as she spent some of her time living elsewhere and traveling the country promoting her conservative causes.
Since leaving office, Palin has bought and sold homes in Arizona. She released a New York Times bestselling memoir, “Going Rogue,” filmed the TLC reality TV series “Sarah Palin’s Alaska” and the Sportsman Channel’s “Amazing America with Sarah Palin,” launched and dropped the online Sarah Palin Channel, and gave political commentary on Fox before her contract was not renewed in 2015.
She also entertained questions about running for various offices, including against Murkowski in the senator’s 2022 reelection bid, and taped a video calling out Murkowski as the senator weighed whether to back Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 2020. (Murkowski ended up voting for Barrett.)
Lately, Palin has been bashing the effectiveness of the coronavirus vaccines, telling a conference sponsored by Turning Point USA in Phoenix, “It’ll be over my dead body that I’ll have to get a shot.”
“I will not do that,” said Palin, who tested positive for Covid-19 in 2021 and 2022. “I won’t do it, and they better not touch my kids either.”
In an interview this week, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican who served as attorney general while Palin was governor, said he was not endorsing in the race at this point.
“We got a lot of good candidates in the race, 50. She’s one of them,” Sullivan said. “And what I’m looking for right now is someone who can fit the seat of Don Young as a fighter.”
Asked if Palin would be a good partner on Capitol Hill, Sullivan said: “There’s a lot who would be good partners, and she’s one of them.”
Murkowski had a different response to that question.
“I’m not kind of giving an analysis of her at this point,” Murkowski said. “I’m talking about all these other campaigns.”
Palin irked Murkowski in 2008 when she continually touted her effort to break up the “old boys’ network,” a reference to the senator’s father, and even flirted with challenging the senator in 2010.
Murkowski warned her at the time not to challenge her.
“I can guarantee it would be a very tough election,” Murkowski said in 2008. Palin never ran against Murkowski.
Asked about that episode and her relationship with Palin, Murkowski said Wednesday, “I’m not going to talk about Sarah Palin.”
A tricky path for victory
The 2022 election could also be dicey.
The top four candidates of the special primary election on June 11 will run in the special general election on August 16. The winner will serve in Congress until January.
On August 16, Alaskans will also vote in the regular primary election, and the top four candidates will face each other on November 8. The winner of that House race will earn a full, two-year term.
Alaska’s elections are now ranked-choice voting, where voters can rank up to five candidates.
Now, Palin faces nearly 50 opponents in her bid for Congress, including Begich. Other Republican candidates include state Sen. Josh Revak, former head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tara Sweeney and former state Sen. John Coghill. Independent Al Gross, who ran and lost the 2020 Alaska US Senate race as the Democratic nominee, and Democratic Assemblyman Chris Constant are also running.
Young’s imprints are all over the race for his successor; Revak and Sweeney were the statewide co-chairs of Young’s 2022 campaign, and Begich co-chaired his 2020 campaign before announcing his 2022 bid against the congressman.
In interviews, Revak, an Army veteran, and Begich sought to distinguish themselves from Palin.
“I’m not going to Congress to be incendiary,” Revak said. “I’m going there to represent Alaskans.”
Begich added: “I think a lot of Alaskans recognize that a lightning-rod style is going to do very little to nothing to actually advance the case for Alaska at a national level.”
Conservative House Republicans embrace Palin
In the House, Palin’s congressional bid was more warmly received by her potential GOP colleagues.
Members of the hardline House Freedom Caucus — an invite-only group that has morphed into a Trump loyalty club over the years — said Palin would likely find a welcome home in their conservative crew.
“I’m glad to hear it,” freshman Rep. Matt Rosendale of Montana, a Freedom Caucus member, said of Palin’s announcement. “And I would expect that if she comes to Congress that she would be a member of the Freedom Caucus.”
In an interview with Fox this week, Palin singled out the Freedom Caucus as a group she would be interested in joining and praised its rabble-rousing brand of politics.
“I’ve always been a big fan of the Freedom Caucus,” Palin said. “I’ve always felt for them. Because they’ve been criticized, and beat up, and misunderstood. But they’ve got the right priorities.”
But it’s not just the far-right group: the highest-ranking House Republican also heaped praise on Palin.
“I’m a big fan of Sarah Palin,” said McCarthy, a close Trump ally. “I was impressed by her. I’ve talked to her before.”
Republicans think Trump’s endorsement could certainly give Palin a leg up in the packed primary, but they also noted she is already a national figure in conservative politics with high name recognition.
“We can’t ignore that she’s made a name for herself in her own right,” Rosendale said.
Even though members of the Freedom Caucus were mostly thrilled by the prospect of Palin joining their ranks, some of them couldn’t help but poke fun at the gaffes that often defined her political brand.
“I know she could see Russia from her back porch,” joked Tennessee Rep. Scott DesJarlais, when asked about Palin’s politics, referring to Tina Fey’s “Saturday Night Live” impression of Palin. “But no, she is very conservative. … I look forward to working with her.”
This story has been updated with a response from Sarah Palin’s campaign.
™ & © 2022 Cable News Network, Inc., a WarnerMedia Company. All rights reserved.
CNN’s Ted Barrett and Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.