Steelman breaks Palin's 2012 winning streak but burnishes credentials

Up until her endorsement of underdog Sarah Steelman to win the Republican nomination for a Missouri Senate seat, Sarah Palin has had a golden touch, as every one of her previously endorsed candidates this election cycle – four others in Senate primaries – won in their primary races.

But while Steelman's loss marked the end of Palin's winning streak, it doesn't mean Palin's lost her touch. Rather, the former Alaska governor and 2008 GOP vice presidential nominee’s effort to back a candidate unlikely to win might have helped to burnish her credentials as an ideological warrior rather than an opportunist looking for the spotlight.

Though Palin has endorsed far fewer candidates this year than she did in 2010, when she became one of the loudest voices in the Tea Party movement and backed more than 60 congressional candidates, many of those endorsements have come so last-minute that she seemed to be entering the fray with little risk.

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Her endorsement of Ted Cruz for a Senate seat in Texas, while showing support for an underdog, came just as Cruz began to gain momentum — and she appeared on the stump with him just a few days before the primary.

Similarly, she endorsed Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah) just 11 days before his primary and Deb Fischer in Nebraska just four days in advance of hers. 

Palin's endorsement of Hatch surprised some, as the senator’s decades in office clearly make him a part of the Republican establishment — a contrast to the fringe Tea Party mantle Palin often takes on. But he had spent time wooing Tea Party supporters, and was strongly favored to win — and did, in a landslide.

Hatch spokeswoman Evelyn Call said Palin's endorsement of Hatch was based not on the likelihood of a win, but rather his conservative bona fides.

"She's already been a very vocal supporter of Hatch, and cited his conservative rating and support for the balanced budget amendment" when endorsing him, she said.

While Fischer was an underdog in the race, her campaign released a poll showing her within a few points of usurping favored candidate Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning just days before Palin announced her endorsement, offering hard proof of a potential win. 

Fischer spokesman Daniel Keylin, who wasn't working on the candidate's campaign at the time of Palin's endorsement, said Palin's pick was a pragmatic one, as it indicated her support for the candidate most likely to win.

"Deb was the best choice in the primary, and she's certainly the best choice in the general election," he said.

In April, Palin endorsed Indiana state Treasurer Richard Mourdock in his bid to unseat longtime Sen. Dick Lugar, calling him "the conservative choice for Indiana." Mourdock's victory over the six-term senator was a major boost for the Tea Party. 

But Steelman said that Palin’s endorsement of her in Missouri was an example of the former governor "taking a chance" with a promising candidate based not on the likely winner but rather on results.

"Sarah Palin has the courage of her convictions," she said. Sarah Palin looked at my record and knew that I was the one who would actually fight the good 'old boys club' and not become one of them."

Palin might have pushed hardest for a Steelman win, as she recorded radio ads, filmed a television ad and stumped with the candidate. But while Steelman was widely considered to be the underdog in the race, she only trailed the primary's winner, Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), by 5 percent in a poll released the day before the primary, and came in less than a percentage point behind second-place businessman John Brunner.

While Steelman’s loss breaks Palin’s streak, the former Alaska governor has the opportunity to pull out a few more wins with other endorsements in both Georgia's and Florida's Republican primaries. She’s endorsed Martha Zoller in Georgia’s 9th district, where Zoller faces a tough run-off contest, and Rep. Sandy Adams (R-Fla.) in an incumbent-on-incumbent contest pitting Adams against GOP Rep. John Mica (R-Fla.), chairman of the House Transportation Committee.