The Magazine

The Most Popular Governor

Alaska's Sarah Palin is the GOP's newest star.

Jul 16, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 41 • By FRED BARNES
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Juneau

The wipeout in the 2006 election left Republicans in such a state of dejection that they've overlooked the one shining victory in which a Republican star was born. The triumph came in Alaska where Sarah Palin, a politician of eye-popping integrity, was elected governor. She is now the most popular governor in America, with an approval rating in the 90s, and probably the most popular public official in any state.

Her rise is a great (and rare) story of how adherence to principle--especially to transparency and accountability in government--can produce political success. And by the way, Palin is a conservative who only last month vetoed 13 percent of the state's proposed budget for capital projects. The cuts, the Anchorage Daily News said, "may be the biggest single-year line-item veto total in state history."

As recently as last year, Palin (pronounced pale-in) was a political outcast. She resigned in January 2004 as head of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission after complaining to the office of Governor Frank Murkowski and to state Attorney General Gregg Renkes about ethical violations by another commissioner, Randy Ruedrich, who was also Republican state chairman.

State law barred Palin from speaking out publicly about ethical violations and corruption. But she was vindicated later in 2004 when Ruedrich, who'd been reconfirmed as state chairman, agreed to pay a $12,000 fine for breaking state ethics laws. She became a hero in the eyes of the public and the press, and the bane of Republican leaders.

In 2005, she continued to take on the Republican establishment by joining Eric Croft, a Democrat, in lodging an ethics complaint against Renkes, who was not only attorney general but also a long-time adviser and campaign manager for Murkowski. The governor reprimanded Renkes and said the case was closed. It wasn't. Renkes resigned a few weeks later, and Palin was again hailed as a hero.

Palin, 43, the mother of four, passed up a chance to challenge Republican senator Lisa Murkowski, the then-governor's daughter, in 2004. She endorsed another candidate in the primary, but Murkowski won and was reelected. Palin said then that her 14-year-old son talked her out of running, though it's doubtful that was the sole reason.

In 2006, she didn't hesitate. She ran against Gov. Murkowski, who was seeking a second term despite sagging poll ratings, in the Republican primary. In a three-way race, Palin captured 51 percent and won in a landslide. She defeated former Democratic governor Tony Knowles in the general election, 49 percent to 41 percent. She was one of the few Republicans anywhere in the country to perform above expectations in 2006, an overwhelmingly Democratic year. Palin is unabashedly pro life.

With her emphasis on ethics and openness in government, "it turned out Palin caught the temper of the times perfectly," wrote Tom Kizzia of the Anchorage Daily News. She was also lucky. News broke of an FBI investigation of corruption by legislators between the primary and general elections. So far, three legislators have been indicted.

In the roughly three years since she quit as the state's chief regulator of the oil industry, Palin has crushed the Republican hierarchy (virtually all male) and nearly every other foe or critic. Political analysts in Alaska refer to the "body count" of Palin's rivals. "The landscape is littered with the bodies of those who crossed Sarah," says pollster Dave Dittman, who worked for her gubernatorial campaign. It includes Ruedrich, Renkes, Murkowski, gubernatorial contenders John Binkley and Andrew Halcro, the three big oil companies in Alaska, and a section of the Daily News called "Voice of the Times," which was highly critical of Palin and is now defunct.

One of her first acts as governor was to fire the Alaska Board of Agriculture. Her ultimate target was the state Creamery Board, which has been marketing the products of Alaska dairy farmers for 71 years and wanted to close down after receiving $600,000 from the state. "You don't just close your doors and walk away," Palin told me. She discovered she lacked the power to fire the Creamery Board. Only the board of agriculture had that authority. So Palin replaced the agriculture board, which appointed a new creamery board, which has rescinded the plan to shut down.

In preserving support for dairy farmers, Palin exhibited a kind of Alaskan chauvinism. She came to the state as an infant, making her practically a native. And she is eager to keep Alaska free from domination by oil companies or from reliance on cruise lines whose ships bring thousands of tourists to the state.

"She's as Alaskan as you can get," says Dan Fagan, an Anchorage radio talk show host. "She's a hockey mom, she lives on a lake, she ice fishes, she snowmobiles, she hunts, she's an NRA member, she has a float plane, and her husband works for BP on the North Slope," Fagan says. Todd Palin, her high school sweetheart, is a three-time winner of the 2,000-mile Iron Dog snowmobile race from Wasilla to Nome to Fairbanks. It's the world's longest snowmobile race.

Gov. Palin grew up in Wasilla, where as star of her high school basketball team she got the nickname "Sarah Barracuda" for her fierce competitiveness. She led her underdog team to the state basketball championship. Palin also won the Miss Wasilla beauty contest, in which she was named Miss Congeniality, and went on to compete in the Miss Alaska pageant.

At 32, she was elected mayor of Wasilla, a burgeoning bedroom community outside Anchorage. Though Alaskans tend to be ferociously anti-tax, she persuaded Wasilla voters to increase the local sales tax to pay for an indoor arena and convention center. The tax referendum won by 20 votes.

In 2002, Palin entered statewide politics, running for lieutenant governor. She finished a strong second in the Republican primary. That fall, she dutifully campaigned for Murkowski, who'd given up his Senate seat to run for governor. Afterwards, she turned down several job offers from Murkowski, finally accepting the oil and gas post. When she quit 11 months later, "that was her defining moment" in politics, says Fagan.

Her campaign for governor was bumpy. She missed enough campaign appearances to be tagged "No Show Sarah" by her opponents. She was criticized for being vague on issues. But she sold voters on the one product that mattered: herself.

Her Christian faith--Palin grew up attending nondenominational Bible churches--was a minor issue in the race. She told me her faith affects her politics this way: "I believe everything happens for a purpose. In my own personal life, if I dedicated back to my Creator what I'm trying to create for the good . . . everything will turn out fine." That same concept applies to her political career, she suggested.

The biggest issue in the campaign was the proposed natural gas pipeline from the North Slope that's crucial to the state's economy. Murkowski had made a deal with the three big oil companies--Exxon, BP, ConocoPhillips--which own the gas reserves to build the pipeline. But the legislature turned it down and Palin promised to create competition for the pipeline contract.

She made three other promises: to end corruption in state government, cut spending, and provide accountability. She's now redeeming those promises.

Palin describes herself as "pro-business and pro-development." She doesn't want the oil companies to sit on their energy reserves or environmental groups to block development of the state's resources. "I get frustrated with folks from outside Alaska who come up and say you shouldn't develop your resources," she says. Alaska needs to be self-sufficient, she says, instead of relying heavily on "federal dollars," as the state does today.

Her first major achievement as governor was lopsided passage by the legislature of the Alaska Gasline Inducement Act, which is designed to attract pipeline proposals this summer. The state is offering $500 million in incentives, but the developer must meet strict requirements. The oil companies have said they won't join the competition.

Palin's tough spending cuts drew criticism from Republican legislators whose pet projects were vetoed. But her popularity doesn't appear threatened. "It's not just that she's pretty and young," says Dittman. "She's really smart. And there's no guile. She says her favorite meal is moose stew or mooseburgers. It wouldn't shock people if that were true."

Fred Barnes is executive editor of THE WEEKLY STANDARD.