On a warm summer day in Wasilla, Alaska, on the shores of Lake Lucille, in 2009, the state’s governor convened a mysterious press conference where she announced that she was stepping down.
The governor, Sarah Palin, hadn’t finished her first term in office and spent a good chunk of it outside the state, trying to get the late Senator John McCain elected president as his vice presidential nominee. She was picked, ostensibly, to inject energy and charisma into the campaign. The premise of her selection was that she was supposed to be a preview of what the future of the Republican Party would look like.
It turned out that that wasn’t such a good look. Palin made mistake after mistake, showing she was way out of her depth. She became a late-night punch line—and fodder for some of the best Saturday Night Live skits ever. At moments during the 2008 campaign, Palin’s presence eclipsed McCain’s, the Republican Party’s actual nominee. And her penchant for unnecessary and embarrassing gaffes became a signature of her public image.
During the presidential campaign and afterward, she grumbled to aides that unfair media attention and home-state ethics investigations were choking her governorship. And so it came to pass that one day, out of nowhere, she up and quit.
“Political operatives descended on Alaska last August digging for dirt,” Palin said in her resignation announcement. “The ethics law that I championed became their weapon of choice over the past nine months. I’ve been accused of all sorts of frivolous ethics violations, such as holding a fish in a photograph or wearing a jacket with a logo on it. And answering reporters’ questions. Every one of these, though, all 15 of the ethics complaints, have been cheap.” Palin went on to say that her then-husband, Todd, and she were “looking at more than half a million dollars in legal bills just to set the record straight.”
With Palin now running for Alaska’s at-large congressional seat—from which she would be representing the entire state, just as she did as governor—questions about her quitting her job with no notice and no apparent good reason are sure to dog her.
Most failed presidential running mates fade from the national spotlight. Some still hold elected office, occasionally indulging questions about their political future. Despite the train wreck that Palin’s national candidacy was, her aides at the time stressed that her political career was not over. Palin, through the McCain campaign, had awakened a darkly populist and resentment-fueled sect of the Republican Party that many, including Barack Obama, connect directly to the rise of Donald Trump.
But as much as she was mocked, millions adored her. Palin had become a national draw for other campaigns, especially within the conservative Tea Party movement. Much like Trump in the last few election cycles, her endorsement could make a candidacy. Senator Ted Cruz has attributed her support for helping him oust an incumbent Republican senator and win that seat in 2012. Speculation about whether she would run for president herself in 2012 was rampant, and talk she cultivated. Palin would go on to give speeches on foreign policy across the country and ink a $1.25 million book deal for her Going Rogue memoir.
To Alaskans and Palin supporters at the time of her announcement, her decision to step down was sort of a surprise—but only sort of.
“It was a surprise, yeah. When would it not be a surprise when the governor suddenly steps down?” Alaska pollster Ivan Moore said in an interview this week. “Her deciding, ‘Eh, I’m not interested in doing this anymore’ was very, very unusual. I mean you find another case of someone doing that. Forget about just voluntarily [not] running for reelection but just walking away halfway through? You don’t do that!”
Moore added, “I think she got a real sense of what she would bring in, moneywise, and didn’t want to piss about for another year and a half [as governor] earning $150,000 a year.”
Bill Kristol, the neoconservative turned Never Trumper who had promoted Palin as a veep choice to the McCain campaign and publicly, says he thought at the time that Palin’s announcement was possibly some kind of savvy tactical move that most people (including him) may not totally understand at the moment. But Kristol, in an interview, also conceded that by the time of her speech in Wasilla, it was clear that she was an irredeemable lightweight.
“At that point I realized what I had already, of course, partly realized but didn’t quite want to realize, which is that she was not a serious person and the celebrity had gotten to her,” Kristol recalled in an interview this week. Kristol added, “I sort of hoped she was a little more substantial than she turned out to be.”
Others who knew her well at the time said Palin was just clearly dissatisfied with the job of being governor. Palin was “really unhappy the way her life was going,” the late Republican strategist Fred Malek said at the time. “She felt that the pressures of the job combined with her family obligations and the demands and desires to help other Republican candidates led her to decide not to run again.”
At the time, Jason Recher, who had worked for Palin on the McCain campaign, tried to spin her announcement as “a positive, forward-looking decision for her state, her family; and she cares so much for Alaska that she is going to get outside of the bubble and work to its benefit outside.”
When I reached out to Recher to ask him about her congressional campaign, he declined my interview request, and in an email he said was off the record (even though I made no such agreement with him), said, “I’m not much for nostalgia these days!”
Palin’s political celebrity has faded substantially in recent years, which only pushed her to crave the spotlight more. Recall this bizarre appearance on The Masked Singer, when she danced around to “Baby Got Back” in a furry bear costume.
But Palin also has retained a finger on the pulse of the hard right. In 2016 she opted to cut her ties with Cruz, who badly needed her endorsement, in the Republican primary and endorse Donald Trump, delivering a winding and barely cogent speech that won her more mockery.
Now she’s vying for a congressional seat in a year when Republicans—and really Trumpian Republicans—are favored to dominate federal elections. But Palin isn’t a lock. She is one of 16 candidates in the Republican primary. A favorability poll Moore conducted last October found her approval rating at 31 percent and disapproval at 56 percent. Moore found that people really didn’t like that she quit the governorship halfway through a term.
“The overwhelming response was she quit; she’s a quitter. People really didn’t like it,” Moore said.
The one ace Palin has up her sleeve is Trump’s potential endorsement. But there too that may only go so far. Some Republican candidates have benefited either from distancing themselves from Trump or won without his endorsement—think Governor Glenn Youngkin. Trump’s support helps a candidate who is otherwise unknown. But everyone knows who Sarah Palin is, and that’s really her doing.