There is simply no factual evidence for two points of conventional wisdom about recent national elections: that Sarah Palin and her Tea Party supporters represent a triumphant, even dominant force in American politics, and that more centrist, veteran GOP office-holders like John McCain exert little appeal to the electorate.
Regarding Palin’s power as a king (or queen) maker, her 2010 record counts as mixed at best. According to the tally by the Washington Post, she endorsed a total of 64 candidates in the course of the campaign; 32 of them lost either in the primaries or the general election. Moreover, Palin’s victories include many lavishly-funded, front-running incumbents who easily crushed their opponents (like her former running mate John McCain, or Governor Rick Perry in Texas) while many of her riskier, anti-establishment choices (like Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, Sharron Angle in Nevada, and Clint Diddier in Washington) worked out badly for the party and undermined GOP hopes of capturing the Senate. Moreover, in her home state of Alaska, Palin’s embarrassing candidate, Joe Miller, won the primary by a narrow margin, then lost decisively in the general election to a write-in campaign for the more moderate Senator Lisa Murkowski.
Overall, Republicans captured six Senate seats previously held by Democrats—in Arkansas, Illinois, Indiana, North Dakota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Five of these six victors (all except Senator-elect Ron Johnson in Wisconsin) are long-time office-holders identified with the Republican establishment, not Tea Party insurgents. Only one of the successful Senate takeovers (the victory of John Boozman in Arkansas) occurred with the support of Sarah Palin.
Her most celebrated victors – Rand Paul in Kentucky and Marco Rubio in Florida – won their contests in states where Republicans already held the Senate seats, so hardly demonstrated a broadening of the Republican base or an extension of the party’s geographic reach.
No one can doubt Sarah Palin’s status as bright, charismatic, and deeply popular among hard-core conservatives but she won her national prominence not through political victories or governing achievements of her own, but through John McCain’s surprise decision to anoint a first-term Alaska governor as his running mate. Her clout as a media sensation can’t be doubted or denied but her impact as an electoral mover or shaker remains unproven.
McCain himself turns up as Exhibit A for another oft-repeated political conclusion with no real basis in recent history. According to many outspoken right-wingers (particularly on talk radio), Republicans of McCain’s “maverick” or “moderate” stripe doom the party whenever they’re nominated.