An online campaign to draft Sarah Palin into running for the U.S. Senate was a long-shot.
Some Republicans say it was also an unnecessary distraction -- and probably nothing more than a ruse to raise money by an obscure Tea Party organization.
In the race to unseat Democratic Sen. Mark Begich, Republican frontrunner Dan Sullivan has had to spend some time during his primary bid answering questions about how a hypothetical Palin candidacy would affect the race.
It was an unwelcome, if minor, distraction in a campaign that Republicans would like to keep focused on Begich, though it's not expected to have a lasting effect on the contest.
But some Republicans are galled nonetheless because of what they believe the Tea Party Leadership Fund’s "draft Palin" effort was a moneymaking ploy, not a legitimate attempt to coax the conservative icon into the Senate race.
Even influential conservative groups who don’t always see eye to eye with the Republican Establishment are concerned.
“People who misrepresent themselves to conservative donors distract from the real goal: electing a taxpayer hero like Dan Sullivan and defeating liberal Democrat Mark Begich in November,” Club for Growth spokesman Barney Keller told the Washington Examiner.
Republicans say the TPLF’s draft Palin campaign is part of a growing trend of shadowy political action committees that use the Tea Party brand and voter angst with the political establishment to raise money online. These groups often spend minimally on the campaigns and candidates they purport to champion, while succeeding in enriching the PAC and the organizers and consultants behind it.
The TPLF’s draft Palin to challenge Begich is a classic example of a dynamic that has put a dent in legitimate efforts to raise money for competitive GOP candidates and invest much needed resources in their campaigns, Republican officials say.
Tim Crawford, the treasurer for SarahPAC, said his group sent a cease-and-desist letter to Dan Backer over the TPLF’s efforts to draft Palin into the Senate race. Backer is the principal attorney for DB Capitol Strategies, and the TPLF is one of his clients there. Backer’s response to the letter from SarahPAC?
“He essentially refused,” Crawford said.
Backer said the TPLF treated the letter appropriately, while insinuating that the draft campaign didn’t bother Palin as much as Crawford suggested. Backer added that it would have been “tantamount to malpractice” if Palin’s attorneys hadn’t sent them the cease-and-desist letter. Their efforts to recruit Palin continued apace until the filing deadline.
“Of course we understand fully that the object of a draft must and naturally will notify a committee that is attempting to draft them that it is acting without their authorization,” he said, “because it’s almost necessary to do that to comply with federal FEC regulations regarding draft committees and the objects of their affections.”
According to Federal Election Commission documents, the TPLF invested $20,000 in the draft campaign in the 2014 election cycle, prior to Alaska's June 2 deadline to file candidacy papers for the Aug. 19 GOP Senate primary, including an $10,000 expenditure in May. Backer, who represents dozens of PACs, did not pinpoint how much money the draft Palin campaign raised. He said its primary goal was to get petition signatories to show Palin a Senate bid would have broad grassroots support.
The TPLF has shown little hesitancy to support long shot candidates in Republican primaries. The group actively opposed House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, in his May 6 primary. And, on Monday, the TPLF sent an email blast encouraging readers to donate for Nancy Mace, one of Sen. Lindsey Graham's GOP challengers in South Carolina's June 10 primary.
The message the group used to drum up support for its draft Palin campaign was breathless and highly suggestive, though hardly out of step with standard campaign practices. In one email to activists and prospective donors, TPLF made it sound as though Palin was on the verge of jumping into the race and said the 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee was poised to become the next Senate majority leader.
“Mamma Grizzly is ready to strike -- our efforts to draft Sarah Palin for United States Senate are paying off. Just last week, Sarah Palin called into a local Anchorage talk radio show -- showing signs of reemergence into state politics,” read an email appeal signed by Backer. “Sarah Palin isn't afraid to confront Harry Reid when he attacks hard working Americans on the Senate floor, and now he's afraid she will take his job as Senate Majority Leader!”
Backer was unapologetic. “I really thought this was a great campaign,” he said. “I think we do a really good job of reflecting the desires and the will of the people who are donating money to do us because we do a lot of time listening.”
The Sullivan campaign declined to comment. But his Republican supporters said the draft Palin effort would be quickly forgotten, particularly since the filing deadline has passed. A GOP strategist likened the annoyance it caused to a “mosquito.”
Sullivan was appointed state attorney general by Palin when she was governor, and the two don’t have any negative history between them or any rivalry. Additionally, added one Alaska-based GOP insider, Palin is rarely there anymore and casts a much lighter political shadow. A second Alaska Republican said the only tangible way the draft campaign showed up in the Senate campaign was as a fundraising talking point for Begich.
The Democratic incumbent, this source said, used the so-called possibility of a Palin Senate candidacy to drum up his political base and raise money. “That was the most annoying thing” for the campaign, this source added. “The ability of the other side to raise money off of it — the Sarah Palin bogeyman.”