Joe Miller's primary showing reveals Sarah Palin's continuing sway over Alaska

Voters headed to the polls Tuesday in five states in the last major primaries of the summer.
By Jason Horowitz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 25, 2010; 12:34 PM

WASILLA, ALASKA -- On a recent afternoon here, Karen Adams wheeled a shopping cart packed with meat, pineapples and cereal boxes around a supermarket as she talked about Sarah Palin's presence in Alaska.

"I used to see her all the time," said Adams, 34, who proudly voted for Palin as mayor and then governor and still regularly bumped into Palins' parents at the post office. "I don't see her these days."

Palin may have withdrawn from official life in Alaska, but the surprisingly strong showing in Tuesday's GOP Senate primary by Joe Miller, the long-shot candidate she backed over Lisa Murkowski, made it clear to the entire country that she still exercises great influence in her home state.

(Video: Watch Joe Miller on ABC's 'Top Line')

This matters for Palin's aspirations outside of Alaska, too.

Alaska is central to the political imagery, folksy charm and outsider credentials of Palin. In her introductory speech to national politics during the Republican National Convention she referred to herself as a "gal who knows the North Slope of Alaska." The bus she rode across the country on her book tour featured Palin beaming in front of Alaska's snowcapped mountains and spruce-spotted hills. More recently, she coined the term "mama grizzlies" to describe women who want to protect the nation from "fundamental transformation," because there are grizzly bears "in Alaska." Her upcoming TV show is called "Sarah Palin's Alaska."

By endorsing Miller on Facebook, boosting him on Twitter and making robo-calls for him against the heavily favored establishment candidate, Palin risked sacrificing the founding pillar of her political creation myth. Instead, preliminary results from Tuesday's election showed Miller ahead, 45,909 votes to 43,949 votes. According to the Alaska Division of Elections, more than 16,000 absentee ballots were requested and fewer than half had been returned. Whether he ultimately prevailed or not was beside the point. Palin, whose presidential and political aspirations are still undetermined, had demonstrated that the strength of her base is not.

"Within conservative politics in Alaska she is still a very formidable force," Miller said in a recent interview. "She's certainly a net positive to any candidate running for office."

This was not the consensus view leading up to the election.

"I like Sarah," Republican Don Young, who has represented all of Alaska in the House of Representatives for 40 years, said in a July interview. "What pull she's got, I don't know."

Alaska's Democratic and Republican senators were more certain that Palin, who in the lower 48 states is considered the state's most prominent politician, was political history.

"Palin was moments in time," Sen. Mark Begich said in a downtown Anchorage coffee shop, also in July. He called it a "total misperception" that the former governor had any influence over politics in the state. "She's not establishment. I'm not sure what she is. She has a higher negative now than she's ever had. She's a net negative. I think for a lot of people, she quit. And Alaskans are not quitters."

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