Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin -- though derided on the left and recently dismissed by former Vice President Dick Cheney as a poor pick in 2008 -- is nevertheless proving her enduring power within the Republican Party in the most concrete of ways: She keeps picking winners.
Each of five candidates she has endorsed this year who have faced primaries or other campaigns have won, including former Texas solicitor general Ted Cruz, who Tuesday beat the state's well-connected lieutenant governor for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate.
In Palin's biggest test yet as a kingmaker, she heads Friday to Missouri to stump for former state treasurer Sarah Steelman in a close three-way race to take on Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill in November.
It is an especially important race for Republicans, who believe that McCaskill is vulnerable and that Missouri represents one of their best chances for a pickup as they seek to win the four Senate seats they need to guarantee control of the chamber.
Polls have shown Steelman leading Rep. Todd Akin, who represents a suburban St. Louis district, but slightly trailing businessman John Brunner heading into Tuesday's primary. She hopes Palin's nod will be a critical validator of her conservative credentials, distinguishing her in a race in which the candidates have espoused virtually identical policy positions.
A 30-second ad featuring Palin praising Steelman as "conservative maverick" who will defend tax dollars "like a mama grizzly defending her cubs" is now airing in all of Missouri's media markets. Steelman's campaign is hoping that as many as 1,000 people might come out to see Palin at a Friday barbecue at a blueberry patch south of Kansas City.
"She's got a brand that people understand in Missouri," said Patrick Tuohey, a Steelman spokesman. "Her endorsement tells people everything they need to know."
For candidates, Palin's endorsement process is as mysterious as it is desirable. She conducts no formal interviews, distributes no candidate surveys. Often she keeps her nods secret even from their recipients until just before they become public.
She has endorsed just nine Republicans this year -- five of them women, according to the Web site of SarahPAC, her political committee. In an interview on Fox News on Wednesday, Palin said that she is making down-ticket races, not the presidential campaign, a focus of her efforts this year. She called Senate and House races "so instrumental in reforming government, shrinking it, allowing the private sector to grow and thrive."
Palin's advisers did not respond to a request for further elaboration. But several trends have emerged that differentiate her from other tea party groups, such as Club for Growth and FreedomWorks.
Those organizations tend to make their endorsements early in a primary campaign and their main focus is delivering cash. In Texas, Club for Growth officials said the group spent more than $5.5 million in support of Cruz. Palin instead focuses on lending her brand to the candidate and generally arrives closer to primary day.
This has allowed her to pick candidates at the right time. Some of them might have gone on to win even without her support -- such as Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the six-term incumbent Utah senator whom Palin backed.
But whether her success rate is a testament to her continued sway over Republican activists or to a savvy ability to spot winners, her track record has been clear.
She picked Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock to knock off 35-year incumbent Sen. Richard G. Lugar in the state's May primary and supported state Sen. Deb Fischer, who won the GOP nomination for Senate in Nebraska, when fellow tea party luminary Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C., and the Club for Growth backed state Treasurer Don Stenberg instead.
"She energizes our base. That's the great talent she's always had," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz. "It happens all the time. You'd be amazed."
In Missouri, the conservative coalition is split into three parts: The fiscal hawks, such as FreedomWorks and Sen. Tom Coburn, R-Okla., are backing Brunner; the Christian evangelicals, such as former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, are backing Akin; and the most anti-establishment wing, embodied by Palin, is supporting Steelman.
All three candidates sought Palin's endorsement, leaving Brunner and Akin gingerly praising her even as they suggest her winning streak will end on Tuesday.
Brunner, the former head of a successful chemical company, has spent about $7 million of his own money on ads touting his business background. His campaign manager said that Steelman's record in state office is not as conservative as she claims, pointing to efforts to scuttle tort reform and work with Missouri labor unions.
"Getting an endorsement from Gov. Palin is certainly nice. But I don't think it makes a long record go away," said Jon Seaton.
Akin spokesman Ryan Hite acknowledged that Palin remains popular in Missouri, a traditional swing state that she and McCain captured in 2008. But he said that her appeal has waned a bit and that voters are now looking for proven effectiveness.
"We can't send a rookie," he said.
None of the three is running under the establishment banner -- a key difference with other GOP primaries in states such as Nebraska, Wisconsin and Texas, where a sitting attorney general, former governor and sitting lieutenant governor were all running with their state's GOP establishment backing.
"These are all three of a kind, one of the same," McCaskill said. "They are all trying to be the tea party candidate."
In 2010, general electorate voters rejected several of Palin's picks, including Sharron Angle in Nevada and Christine O'Donnell in Delaware. But Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, said he does not believe that 2012 will be a repeat of that experience.
"I don't think we have any of the problems we had in 2010 in terms of electability," he said.
By ROSALIND S. HELDERMAN AND PAUL KANE
The Washington Post
Alaska Dispatch Publishing