In Alaska, Sarah Palin’s Political Comeback Stirs Debate Among Voters

WASILLA, Alaska — At one of her hometown churches in a mountainous valley of south-central Alaska, Sarah Palin’s star has dimmed lately.

In the small city of Wasilla on Sunday, some of the congregants who had helped fuel her political rise years ago were weighing whether to back her bid for Alaska’s lone congressional seat in the state’s special election and primary on Tuesday.

“Sarah is conservative, but she seems to have been drawn more into the politics of politics, rather than the values,” said Scott Johannes, 59, a retired contractor attending Wasilla Bible Church. He said he was undecided. “I think her influences are from outside of the state now,” he said.

But nearby, at another Wasilla church Ms. Palin has attended, Joelle Sanchez, 38, said she still believed Ms. Palin stood with Alaskans, even though she does not always agree with the candidate’s sharp-edged persona. Ms. Sanchez’s relatives and friends have been torn over whether to support Ms. Palin’s run for Congress, she said.

“I feel like they are looking at her through a dirty lens,” said Ms. Sanchez, a pastor at Church on The Rock who was leaning toward backing Ms. Palin. “I will not vote until I’ve spent time doing a little more research,” she added.

In churches and coffee shops, on conservative airwaves and right-wing social media, Alaskan voters have debated Ms. Palin’s motives in staging a political comeback — whether she’s interested in public service or in seeking more fame.

Ms. Palin, the former governor of the state and 2008 vice-presidential Republican nominee, cleared one hurdle in June when she led a field of 48 candidates in a special primary election to fill the seat of longtime Representative Don Young, who died in March as he flew home. But she faces the next test on Tuesday in a complex special election that will allow voters to rank their top choices.

Ms. Palin’s campaign did not respond to multiple requests for interviews. In a lengthy interview with The Anchorage Daily News after she announced her run in April, Ms. Palin disputed claims that she was not committed to Alaska.

“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,” Ms. Palin told the newspaper.

Interviews with two dozen voters and strategists in Wasilla, Palmer and Anchorage on Saturday and Sunday captured the challenges ahead for Ms. Palin, who won an endorsement from former President Donald J. Trump but who pollsters say has a tough hill to climb in November because of her low approval ratings.

Several voters said Ms. Palin had abandoned Alaska, after she resigned from the governor’s office in 2009 amid ethics complaints and legal bills. But Ms. Palin’s support remains strong among other Republicans, including conservative women who have followed her political rise and have seen themselves in her struggles as a working mother.

“She is genuine, she’s authentic — what you see is what you get,” said T.J. DeSpain, 51, an art therapist who attended an outdoor concert in Palmer and who said she was drawn to Ms. Palin’s rock-star-like status. “She looks like Alaska Barbie.”

Ms. Palin faces multiple candidates in the special election to fill the remainder of Mr. Young’s term. They include Mary Peltola, a Democrat who could become the first Alaska Native in Congress, and Nicholas Begich III, the Republican scion of the state’s most prominent Democratic political family. Tara Sweeney, a former Trump administration official, is running as a write-in candidate.

The special election, which for the first time will allow voters to rank their choices, is happening alongside the state’s nonpartisan primary election to fill the House seat from 2023 onward. In that race, voters have been asked to make their selection from a list of 22 candidates of all parties and affiliations that also includes Ms. Palin.

The new ranking system has rankled some Republicans who argue that it waters down their vote. Ms. Palin has encouraged supporters to rank her — and her alone.

Establishment Republicans have urged the party’s voters to rate Ms. Palin and Mr. Begich in the top slots, fearing that Ms. Peltola, the Democrat, could clear a path to victory. Should Mr. Begich or Ms. Peltola prevail in the special election, a win for either one could serve as a major boost in momentum and name recognition.

In Wasilla and the nearby city of Palmer, several voters still remembered the days when Ms. Palin competed in beauty queen pageants and starred on the high school basketball team. Some said they admired how she had never seemed to lose her down-to-earth personality, even as her star rose, and how she always appeared willing to strike up a conversation at the local grocery store or at Target.

And many had also not forgotten 2008, when Ms. Palin vaulted to the national stage as Senator John McCain’s running mate and seemed to take on a new and unrecognizable persona. Her anti-establishment language has since come to define the Republican Party, and other candidates have followed suit.

Some Alaskans see her status as a far-right celebrity as an asset, as did a few callers into “The Mike Porcaro Show,” a conservative talk radio program. They argued that Ms. Palin would be able to bring attention to Alaska in a way that a lesser-known newcomer to Congress would not.

But her fame has most likely cost her support as well. “Now she likes to be in the limelight with all these brazen comments and things,” said Jim Jurgeleit, 64, a retired engineer who said he was voting for Ms. Peltola.

Ms. Palin has mostly been on the reality TV circuit and promoting other Republicans outside the state since she resigned from the governor’s office. Some argue she has spent more time on the conservative channel Newsmax or in the lower 48 states than on the campaign trail. Janet Kincaid, 88, the owner of the Colony Inn in Palmer, once opened her lakeside home in Wasilla for a $20,000 fund-raiser when Ms. Palin ran for governor. Now, she preferred to talk about Mr. Begich, for whom she has hosted two fund-raisers.

“To be frank, I’m a strong supporter of Nick Begich,” she said. “I think he’d be better for the job.”

On Monday evening, Ms. Palin’s former in-laws were also hosting a fund-raiser for Mr. Begich at their Wasilla home. Jim Palin, the father of Ms. Palin’s ex-husband, Todd, declined to comment on Ms. Palin. But when asked why he was supporting his former daughter-in-law’s rival, he said, “He will stay in that job for as long as we want him to be.”

At a vintage car show in downtown Palmer, Richard Johnson showed off his 1963 Pontiac Grand Prix. He said he still saw Ms. Palin as reflective of his old-school, conservative values and planned to vote for her. “She is a quitter,” he added, “but at least she stands for something.”

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