Juanita Cassellius wanted Sarah Palin’s help. But she couldn’t figure out how to find her.
Cassellius, an independent from Eagle River, has been working for years to rally fellow Alaskans around defending the Permanent Fund dividend.
Palin, she thought, could help the cause — perhaps with an endorsement, or an anonymous donation to help pay for some radio ads. Cassellius got Palin’s home mailing address from Palin’s father, then sent a couple of letters.
She never heard back, which was especially frustrating because Palin seemed like a “natural ally,” Cassellius said.
“Give me a, ‘Sorry, I’m too busy,’ at least,” she said in a phone interview Wednesday. “I would love to do anything to send a message to Sarah Palin that she’s been MIA. And we don’t appreciate our state being used for her PR campaign.”
Cassellius voted for Palin more than a decade ago, when she was running for governor. She doesn’t plan to again.
Cassellius’ drift away from the one-time vice presidential candidate embodies how Alaska’s politics have shifted since 2006. That’s when Palin was elected governor after a landslide win against the incumbent Republican, Frank Murkowski, in the GOP primary.
Veterans of Alaska elections, and Palin herself, say that it’s dangerous to count her out now that she’s launched a campaign for the U.S. House of Representatives this year. Palin has always been a political outsider, and she’s defied pundits’ predictions before.
“The establishment machine in the Republican Party is very, very, very small. They have a loud voice. They hold purse strings. They have the media’s ear. But they do not necessarily reflect the will of the people,” Palin said in a lengthy phone interview Thursday. “I’ve never been a part of the Republican establishment. So, sure: It’s not going to surprise me at all if they go with whomever their chosen one is.”
But those veterans also say that Palin’s profile, and Alaska’s politics, have changed since she left office.
And after her long absence from state-level affairs, they say Palin can no longer count on the same coalition of grassroots Republicans, independents and even some progressives who supported her reformist, anti-corruption campaign for governor.
Back then, “she was the white knight riding in to sweep up the mess,” said Andrew Halcro, the former Anchorage Republican state legislator who ran against Palin in 2006 and is running against her for Congress this year.
Now, Halcro said, “I think her sliver of the pie has gotten much smaller.”
The ‘Sarah Palin show’
Palin announced her run last week just before the filing deadline for the special primary election to replace Republican U.S. Rep. Don Young, who died suddenly in March after 49 years in office. Forty-seven other candidates have entered the race.
Among Alaska Republicans, the reaction to Palin’s candidacy was muted.
Many leaders from the party’s conservative wing, and from Palin’s Mat-Su home base, have already committed their support to Republican Nick Begich III, who announced his U.S. House bid months ago. And some still resent that she resigned partway through her term as governor and has since maintained a far more visible national profile than local.
“There’s no way in hell I’m going to endorse Sarah Palin. I think it’s not really something that she’s doing for the state of Alaska so much as for the Sarah Palin show,” said Jesse Sumner, a Mat-Su Borough Assembly member who’s endorsed Begich. “Let me know if you find somebody that’s gung-ho for Sarah Palin. Because I can’t find anybody.”
Palin’s congressional campaign drew a quick endorsement from former President Donald Trump and support from other Outside Republican figures, like former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich.
Inside Alaska, Palin is working with longtime friend and aide Kris Perry, who’s acting as campaign manager. Former Republican state Sen. Jerry Ward, the Alaska director for Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign, is an adviser, Perry said in an email. Three Outside campaign professionals — former Trump campaign staffers Michael Glassner, Stephanie Alexander and Mark Serrano — are assisting, too.
Palin said Thursday that her campaign has raised roughly $100,000 so far. But she has not yet announced any Alaska-based endorsements, nor does she appear to have much access to political or party infrastructure inside the state.
In the interview, she defended her level of engagement in Alaska politics, pointing as an example to her 2014 endorsement of independent gubernatorial candidate Bill Walker. She said she also helped raise money for Young, the late congressman, last year, and often hosts business people visiting Alaska from Outside.
She also said she still lives in the same house and has never lived in a different state — only traveled to promote Alaska and visit grandparents.
“If people — and again, I believe these are going to be the political people in Alaska — if they’ve taken issue that I haven’t been hobnobbing around, in the halls of the Juneau Capitol, and been to their cocktail parties and all that, nope. Most normal people don’t do that,” Palin said. “I am a normal person, using the platform that I do have in every way possible, to promote Alaska to help good Alaskans succeed.”
She added: “If one individual says, ‘I tried to get ahold of her about Permanent Fund,’ well, you didn’t try hard enough. Everybody knows where I live. I have social media. If I missed a letter or a request somewhere, I guess I should try to track it down with the volunteers who help with my mail.”
Alaska GOP figures say they’ve had few substantive interactions with Palin since she left office.
Statewide elected Republicans like Gov. Mike Dunleavy and U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski struggle to remember the last time they saw her. Palin is a no-show at Alaska Republican conventions. She speaks at national conservative events but almost never at public gatherings inside the state, with rare exceptions like pop-ins to Trump rallies in 2020.
“She doesn’t have that big of a tribe in Alaska. Nick Begich’s been building a tribe since October,” said Suzanne Downing, who runs the conservative Must Read Alaska site and has supported Begich’s campaign.
Begich is a nephew of Democratic former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, and grandson of Nick Begich Sr., a Democrat who held Alaska’s seat in Congress before the small plane carrying him disappeared in 1972.
Nick Begich III’s list of endorsements includes eight GOP state House members, three state senators, four Republican Party districts and an influential sportsman’s group, the Alaska Outdoor Council. In interviews, several conservative Alaska Republicans said they haven’t heard of Begich supporters moving to Palin since her announcement.
“I haven’t wavered,” said Anchorage Assembly member Jamie Allard, who’s also endorsed Begich. “I haven’t heard of anybody who’s flipped.”
‘She’s always been an outsider’
Still, few political insiders doubt that Palin will win enough votes in Alaska’s new nonpartisan primary system to finish in the top four, which would advance her to the August general election to finish Young’s term.
One of the dynamics favoring Palin, observers said, is that Alaska leads the nation in population turnover. That means that some 40,000 people who move into the state each year might have new or different views of the former governor — and also might be more inclined to give weight to Trump’s endorsement.
“For the low-information voter who just cares that they’re conservative, she’ll probably pass,” said Jim Lottsfeldt, a centrist Anchorage political consultant. “Those who are going to vote for her in the primary are people who are going to look at that ballot and say, ‘I don’t really care a lot about politics, I like Donald Trump, he likes her.’ ”
Jane Plank, a 44-year-old Wasilla resident who’s retired from military service, said she’ll support Palin this year.
Plank, who moved to Alaska six years ago, said she likes Palin’s “down-to-earth” style and doesn’t hold it against her that she resigned and has been more visible in national-level politics.
“I know there’s a lot of people who feel betrayed and all that. But I feel like she was run through the mud during her vice presidential bid, and I don’t blame her for stepping away for a while,” Plank said in a phone interview. Palin’s critics, Plank added, “forget all the good things she did do for Alaska.”
Others stress how Palin has never been closely aligned with Republican insiders, and say she may not need their support.
Palin was elected governor after beating an incumbent Republican, Murkowski, in the party primary. Before that, she first attracted widespread public notice when she brought down a longtime GOP operative close to the oil industry, Randy Ruedrich, for doing party business in his politically appointed job at an obscure state oil and gas agency.
“She’s always been an outsider. And she has been a harsh critic of the GOP and she’s called it corrupt,” said Downing. “There are no Republicans that I have talked to that are excited about her as a candidate. They are done. It is, ‘No thanks, Sarah.’ ”
Palin’s anti-corruption, anti-establishment bent, combined with her willingness to raise taxes on the oil industry while she was governor, meant that she also once drew support from some progressives and Democrats.
But many of those allies have deserted Palin, too, after her vice presidential run and her affiliation with Trump. Ray Metcalfe, an independent Anchorage anti-corruption activist, said he grew uncomfortable watching Palin embrace the new conservative wing of the GOP.
“I voted for her back in the day. But I won’t vote for her again,” said Metcalfe, who served in the state Legislature as a Republican before running for U.S. Senate as a Democrat in 2016. “I appreciated what she did with oil taxes. But she’s changed.”
Cassellius, whose letters to Palin went unanswered, said she’d be more inclined to offer her support if she felt the former governor were more invested in Alaska’s affairs.
Palin has applied for Permanent Fund dividends in recent years, Cassellius noted, which signifies that she’s spending most of her time in Alaska. But Cassellius questioned what Palin has done in recent years at the local or state level.
“It’s kind of creepy having people who are not living in Alaska advise us on electing this ineffective politician who is not involved in our state,” Cassellius said. “Yes, Alaska is cool, and she got to capitalize out in the world with that coolness. No, you cannot come back when you have not paid your dues in our state.”