With the benefit of hindsight, Sarah Palin’s bright-burning, incredibly brief Kardashian-of-the-Fox set influence on our politics was one of those turning points that we never quite fully appreciated in real time. Pre-Palin, vice presidential candidates looked like Al Gore and Dan Quayle; they could defang Katie Couric; they went to Ivy League schools and weren’t grandparents in their 40s. And here was Palin, the self-professed hockey mom, ushering in an era of unabashed white-trash-chic political philistinism wherein it was a credential to view an international map like a Saul Steinberg blob, ransack a department store on a campaign’s dime, and introduce the world to Tripp, Todd, Trig, and the rest of the crew.
Now, a decade later—post-Todd, post-reality TV, post-Anchorage, post-Trump—Palin occupies an odd lane. Sure, she might be the O.G. populist, the ancestral progenitor of today’s MAGA movement. But one of the questions setting Official Washington off is what she might be like if she were to come to Congress. On Wednesday, Palin lost a special election to serve out the term of the recently-deceased Congressman Don Young, falling behind Democrat Mary Peltola by three points, but she is still Trump’s endorsed candidate for the general election in November, which will determine the future of the seat. (After her loss, Palin exhorted her Republican rival in the ranked-choice election, the relatively moderate Nick Begich, to drop out of the general election.) Should Palin win in November, after a decade-plus spent cashing in on her evanescent fame out of the political spotlight, she would be joining a Congress that contains Marjorie Taylor Greene, Lauren Boebert and Matt Gaetz. We’re not in Wasilla anymore.
Whether she gets the seat in November depends on Alaska’s newly-instated ranked choice system that would hypothetically reward centrism rather than political extremes, and whether any new factors come into the race between now and then. But the question that interested me most of all was what sort of representative Palin would be if she were, hypothetically, to come to Congress. After all, in the ancient times of 2008, Palin’s reputation was set in stone by a horde of angry John McCain advisors calling her a “diva”, preemptively blaming her for his loss. Endless reports focused on her $150,000 shopping sprees and contracts fished out of dumpsters that revealed her preferred type of private jets (“a Lear 60 or larger”). Rivers of digital ink were spilled on her divorce, and, well, she had two TV shows. And considering the types of Republicans making up the core of the G.O.P. House—moderates being primaried out, tweet-generating populists coming in—the competition for air time is going to become intense. “I think the whole caucus, especially if they’re in control of the House, every day is going to be a competition to get the most play over who can say the craziest shit,” Joe Walsh, a former Tea Party congressman turned Never Trump radio host, told me.