From somewhere in cyberspace on Monday, perhaps over lunch at her desk, Sarah Palin typed a few words in praise of Karen Handel and hit the “share” button on her Facebook page.
Within hours, the GOP’s polite race for governor of Georgia cracked wide open.
Republicans are free to dispute the former Alaskan governor’s judgment when it comes to choosing a favorite in Tuesday’s primary.
But they cannot question the political phenomenon that Palin has become in the otherwise dead air of a sultry primary season — especially in Republican races for governor.
Nikki Haley of South Carolina in May. Mary Fallin of Oklahoma and Terry Branstad of Iowa in June. And then Palin singled out Handel — “this good conservative reformer.”
Last week, Handel’s three main rivals — state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine, former congressman Nathan Deal, and former state senator Eric Johnson — could ignore her attempts to become known as a champion of ethics, at their expense.
But within six hours of Palin’s endorsement, state Insurance Commissioner John Oxendine climbed down from his front-runner pedestal and leveled a TV ad at Handel that dubbed her a big spender, a funder of Planned Parenthood and a friend to gay couples.
With bad hair.
Former congressman Nathan Deal also spent precious cash on a TV blistering of Handel. He, too, attempted to raise doubts about Handel’s policies toward same-sex couples.
And Handel, through spokesman Dan McLagan, felt free to respond with more muscle than ever.
“John Oxendine is the most corrupt politician in Georgia’s history and is far more likely to serve a term in prison than he is to serve as governor,” McLagan said, using scorched-earth political language seldom heard outside of Louisiana.
All because of Sarah Palin’s Facebook post.
For months, every major Republican candidate for governor in Georgia had pursued Palin’s blessing. And some, when the Queen of the Tea Party’s preference for female, reform-messaged candidates became apparent, tried to forestall it.
In Georgia, if you want to send a message to Palin, there are two obvious portals.
Nick Ayers is executive director of the Republican Governors Association. The former aide to Gov. Sonny Perdue was also Handel’s campaign manager in her successful 2003 bid for Fulton County Commission chairman.
When Palin — fresh from her stint as the GOP vice presidential nominee — was brought in to rescue U.S. Sen. Saxby Chambliss during his 2008 runoff, Ayers squired her about.
There’s also Randy Evans, former general counsel to the state GOP and a member of the state elections board. Evans, a partner at McKenna Long & Aldridge law firm, is a man of many points of view.
He represents Palin. And Newt Gingrich. And Nathan Deal. And Nathan Deal’s campaign for governor.
But Evans was forthright when it came to characterizing the impact of Palin’s entry into the governor’s race: More than significant when it comes via Facebook, but huge if she comes to Georgia in person — as she did for Haley in South Carolina.
Of the four major GOP candidates in the race, Handel has been the weakest fund-raiser. In metro Atlanta, Oxendine’s TV presence has been nine times that of Handel’s.
A single rally with Palin — perhaps with Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer in tow — would change that. So far, the Handel campaign has sent no signal that this might happen before Tuesday.
“There have been some real questions raised whether or not [Handel’s] voting record matches the more conservative part of the party,” Evans said — slipping on his Deal hat. “I think voters will sort all that out.”
But the lawyer quickly shifted back to the topic of Palin and the current political climate. One year ago, the country — at least its reddish portion — was seething with anger over health care.
The anger has spent itself, town halls are empty, and the lethargy of July has set in, Evans said. “We’re looking at horrible voter turnout,” he said. “If we crack 20 [percent], I’ll be happy.”
This is where Palin comes in. “Given how low the turnout is supposed to be, the tea party impact within the Republican party could be dramatic. In that regard, if [Palin] is able to deliver those votes, yeah, it’ll be a big impact,” Evans said.
Over the last year, Handel has been the pick of many in the Republican establishment as a successor to Perdue. “I think this is an anti-establishment primary,” said Evans. “[Palin] is the signal to non-establishment Republicans that it’s okay to be for her, too