The Washington Post

Sarah Palin is a celebritician. But her endorsement can still matter.

There was a time in the not-too-distant past when Sarah Palin was the endorsement to get in contested Republican primaries.

(Michael Reynolds/EPA)

That time has passed. But Palin is still picking favorites. She's made a trio of Senate endorsements this week and has promised more. A Palin seal of approval is not what it once was, but it still matters because she has a loyal base of conservative supporters inclined to follow her lead. In primaries where conservative voters turn out in droves, that means something and can put a candidate on the map for the tea party movement.

"Palin's endorsement adds a boost of nitroglycerin with most Republican primary candidates that are looking for help with tea party grassroots support and contributions, especially in places where Obama is extremely unpopular," said veteran GOP strategist Ron Bonjean.

Palin on Thursday endorsed Midland University President Ben Sasse (R) in the Nebraska Senate race and Mississippi state Sen. Chris McDaniel (R) -- Sen. Thad Cochran's primary challenger. A day earlier, she picked former state House speaker T.W. Shannon (R) in the Oklahoma Senate race. All three are running in deeply conservative states with competitive primaries.

And while all three are underdogs, the pick of Shannon is an especially useful test of Palin's reach as a surrogate. Whereas national tea party groups have rallied to the side of Sasse and McDaniel, Shannon has not gotten the same support. To some degree, Palin is going out on a limb for him.

Endorsements are often overrated in campaigns. They only really matter when they can move votes or steer money or attention toward a candidate. In the case of Palin, it's the attention and network of small donors that is her biggest attribute. Just about everyone knows who Palin is. When she comes to town or cuts an ad or makes an endorsement, local news outlets will report it.

Put another way, Palin has very high earned-media potential. In interviews with The Fix in 2012, aides to now-Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) credited Palin with being an effective closer for him.

"She not only turns them out; her endorsement gets them excited to work for the candidate," said Greg Mueller, a conservative GOP strategist.

Eager to leave a mark on the 2014 campaign, Palin this week promised to tout more candidates. She had previously endorsed U.S. House candidate Katrina Pierson (R) and Texas Attorney General Greg Abbott (R) for governor. Pierson lost badly to Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Tex.), and Abbott is favored to win in November and would do so even without Palin's backing.

"I’m excited to announce that big U.S. Senate and House of Representatives endorsements are on the way! We’ll tackle some state races, too," Palin wrote on Facebook.

Even after losing in 2008 as Sen. John McCain's vice presidential running mate, Palin was a big draw in the midterms. As the tea party rose to power ahead of the 2010 GOP wave election, Palin reached peak levels of popularity, and her endorsement was in high demand. She played a big role that year, endorsing 64 candidates, a Washington Post analysis showed. Her record was mixed; her candidates won 33 races. But it's also worth noting that she backed some real underdogs.

Palin's  influence has faded since then, and she's as polarizing as ever. She's no longer viewed as a potential candidate for president, she's alienated much of the GOP establishment, and Democrats routinely use her to paint the candidates she supports as extremists.

"Her backing isn't as impactful to candidates in the Northeast, where candidates looking to win will have to be prepared to court independents and conservative Democrats in the general," said Bonjean.

Palin surprised observers with some of the endorsements she made in 2012 because she did not always pick the most conservative candidate. She backed Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) in the face of a tea party challenge, then-Rep. and now-Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), whose views on immigration were portrayed by opponents as too soft, and now-Sen. Deb Fischer (D-Neb.), whom national tea party groups passed over in favor of another candidate. The moves suggested that Palin was injecting some political pragmatism into her picks.

There is another vehicle through which Palin can make a mark -- her political action committee, which had more than $1 million at the end of 2013. But Palin's only direct donation to a federal candidate in 2013 was $5,000 to now-Rep. Jason Smith (R-Mo.), who won a special election. She contributed about $300,000 to federal candidates in the 2012 cycle, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, down from about $470,000 in 2010.

A Palin spokesman did not respond to a request seeking comment on Palin's endorsement strategy.

The best news for Palin this election cycle seems to be the dwindling popularity of the Obama administration. She has been one of Obama's outspoken critics from day one of his presidency and hasn't let up. In her CPAC speech last weekend, Palin gave a faux-reading of "Green Eggs and Ham" designed to criticize Obama. The crowd ate it up in a manner that should remind folks that she still has some big fans in the conservative base.

Palin is no longer in the national spotlight like she was in 2010. But in a cycle in which half the Republican senators facing reelection are or have faced contested primaries, there is definitely a market for her input on the political right.

Sean Sullivan has covered national politics for The Washington Post since 2012.

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