It is true that there is no more charismatic Republican in the United States today than Governor Sarah Palin. Her every move, every statement, every fashion choice has been a political forum topic nationwide – and none more so than her endorsement decisions for Republican candidates around the country. From the moment she was chosen to run on the national ticket with John McCain, Palin immediately linked herself to the “maverick” persona, an identity she reinforced by titling her autobiography “Going Rogue.” She has regularly attempted to portray herself as a woman prepared to contend as much with the GOP establishment as she would with the liberal Democrats. It was partly this persona, combined with her frequent outreach efforts, which made her a darling for the Tea Party movement. To be endorsed by Palin is alleged to be a Tea Party seal of approval, a tangible statement of conservative legitimacy. Palin has been proven right so many times over these two years that the more substantive discussion should probably be about those times she has been wrong.
And so we turn now to her endorsement of Kelly Ayotte in New Hampshire’s US Senate race.
No candidate in New Hampshire history has been more coddled by the national Republicans than Ayotte, who has never competed before in any election. Yet, almost as soon as she formed her exploratory committee, the NRSC all but canonized her as the official candidate of preference. US Senators John McCain and John Cornyn leaped like gazelles onto the Ayotte bandwagon. Fundraising partnerships were created for Ayotte, even as the NRSC made the breathtaking claim that they would “stay neutral.” Endorsements rolled in from the rest of the New Hampshire GOP old boys: Judd Gregg, Warren Rudman, Steve Merrill. Ayotte, for her part, stuck to the script of fiscal conservatism, followed by more fiscal conservatism. When asked if, like John McCain, she supported “comprehensive” immigration reform, she would avoid referencing him by instead criticizing “amnesty” and advocating English as an official language.
Palin’s endorsement cited Ayotte as “pro-life,” a position Ayotte proclaims about as loudly as a high school kid asking for answers during a Chemistry final. The endorsement cites Ayotte’s argument before the US Supreme Court on behalf of New Hampshire’s parental notification law as evidence of Ayotte’s anti-abortion credentials. However, Ayotte herself says that she defended the law because it was her “duty as Attorney General” – an unusually serendipitous intersection of principle and paycheck. In fact, it is precisely Ayotte’s firm refusal to take ANY “maverick” positions which should have triggered the normally-alert Palin’s suspicions, not her endorsement.
By contrast, Palin ignored completely the most proven, passionate and thorough conservative in New Hampshire’s US Senate race, Ovide Lamontagne. Did Palin want someone pro-life? Lamontagne’s uncompromising and vocal support of the sanctity of human life has earned him allegiance from religious conservatives in every corner of the state. The Catholic Ovide draws loud ovations from evangelicals at their candidate forums – when Ayotte seems to perpetually have conflicts in her schedule. Did Palin want a Tea Party champion? At New Hampshire’s largest Tea Party in April, where both Ayotte and Ovide shook hands with the crowd, it was Lamontagne who won their straw poll, one of three consecutive major straw poll victories for him. Ayotte, by comparison, has yet to win one. Did Palin want a principled fighter, prepared to “go rogue” when circumstances warrant? Lamontagne’s candidacy has been trudging tenaciously uphill since his announcement, rebuffed by the GOP establishment, less-financed than his primary opponents. As Ayotte and businessman Bill Binnie duel with TV commercials, Lamontagne has been turning the tide of the race through the force of his ideals. At the Coalition of New Hampshire Taxpayers’ annual picnic, it was Lamontagne’s speech that energized the crowd, and won him yet another straw poll. Meanwhile, Ayotte munched strawberries for the cameras in a furious review of every farm stand within a 70-mile radius.
The story here is that Ayotte, with her hefty warchest, TV ad bombardment and party backing, is still finding it difficult to seal the deal. That speaks both to a deficiency within her candidacy and the grassroots Republicans’ desire to support confirmed conservative nominees like Ovide. Governor Palin may provide some strength in trying to push the Ayotte car across the finish line, but if it requires this much heaving, voters may correctly begin to wonder if it’s worth it.