Can Sarah Palin Meet 'The Le Pen Challenge?' Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin. (Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)
By John Gizzi | Thursday, 28 April 2022 12:24 PM
The national — and international — press has recently begun to focus on Sarah Palin's attempted political comeback in the June 11 all-candidate primary for U.S. Representative-at-Large from Alaska.
The question inevitably asked by pundits on all sides is whether the 2008 Republican vice-presidential nominee can overcome the negative image of her in the national media as uninformed on issues and not up to dealing with policy.
Thirteen years after she abruptly resigned the governorship of Alaska to pursue money-making public appearances, Palin faces the charge that she "abandoned" the public sector for personal gain.
In discussing the obstacles she must overcome to win, the name of a foreign politician to whom Palin is frequently likened has been increasingly evoked: Marine Le Pen, nationalist leader and three-time candidate for president of France.
In her third straight bid for the presidency, Le Pen, 53, on Sunday drew 41.8 percent of the vote against incumbent Emmanuel Macron. But what was reported as much as her defeat was that Le Pen had grown so much as a candidate since her 2017 campaign.
At that time, Le Pen seemed uninformed, a lightweight on issues and even flighty. Her much-criticized performance in the lone televised debate was considered pivotal to her eventual crushing by 2-to-1 at the hands of Macron in 2017.
But this year, after years of preparation, Le Pen clearly had matured and improved. Greeting housewives who were grocery shopping on Saturday mornings, the nationalist hopeful talked about inflation, trade, and high taxes.
The best sign of a "new and improved Le Pen" was in the debate, in which the insurgent candidate spoke calmly, mastered facts and figures, and avoided invective.
Even Macron enthusiasts concluded the televised encounter was a draw, and probably helped Le Pen achieve her improved performance at the polls.
So, can Sarah Palin meet "the Le Pen challenge?"
"It all depends on two questions," Wayne Thorburn, onetime executive director of the Texas Republican Party and author of two critically-acclaimed books on Texas politics. "Do Alaskans want someone who can deliver for the state as they have had for years [with the late Republican Rep. Don Young], or do they simply want someone who will reflect their concerns on social issues?
"The second question is whether Palin has done what Le Pen is alleged to have done — namely take the time and effort to become a more serious candidate?"
Donna King, editor of the Carolina Journal and a popular fixture on the Front Row public affairs program in Raleigh, North Carolina, agreed.
"Palin would be wise to study Le Pen's strategy and platform," King told us, "Le Pen has really tapped into the populist vote by adopting many of the Trump-style policies — reducing taxes, cutting the cost of oil and gas, and border security for France. Palin was one of the first public figures to endorse Trump in 2016, and now has a Trump endorsement herself. So far she seems to take great pride in avoiding the Republican establishment in Alaska."
But King added that "[w]hether she can demonstrate the depth of policy knowledge that Le Pen has been able to this year in France, remains to be seen. But that is the challenge and I think she is up to it. In 2009, American voters were used to policy-heavy debates, TV ads. Today, we see a lot of focus on populism and personality, in addition to policy. It has improved primary voter turnout and engaged people who've perhaps never voted before."
Others see Palin's perceived problems differently. Public policy specialist Michelle DeKonty, who served in both the Bush and Trump administrations, told us that "Delivering one-liner powerful punches is Sarah's strength, but it was not Le Pen's. Offended conservatives who don't like that she's been disconnected from Alaska or on celebrity shows will have to recognize the current state of our country, and that now more than ever, we need someone who has a powerful voice and is willing to be a wrecking ball in Congress — and can deliver those one-liners."
"I have no sympathy with either woman's politics," said Georgetown University professor Michael Kazin, an expert on populism and author of a much-praised biography of three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan, "But I do think Le Pen has long been a more serious politician — leading one of her nation's largest parties and showing an ability to take more popular positions.
"As for Palin — running in a crowded primary, will she have to change her image as a pro-Trump celebrity to win? I assume Trump's support will be enough to get her into the run-off."
Under Alaska election law, voters in the special primary June 11 will choose four candidates from major or minor parties to compete in the special election August 16 (the same day as the primary for the general election).
Under new ''ranked-choice'' voting, the candidate in the August 16 contest with the fewest first-choice votes among the four contenders is eliminated and his or her votes given to their second choices. The process of eliminating and reassigning continues until one of the four has a majority.
Chip Saltsman, manager of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee's 2008 presidential campaign, sees Palin's major obstacle to a comeback differently than her just mastering issues.
Noting that Le Pen mixed with people and evinced a common touch, Saltsman said "Gov. Palin has to get back to basics and do things as if she was mayor of Wasilla and not a guest on The Masked Singer [one of Palin's national television appearances]. Playing the celebrity won't work in this campaign. People want to see you talk to them up close and personal. They want to see you work and earn their votes."
John Gizzi is chief political columnist and White House correspondent for Newsmax. For more of his reports, Go Here Now.