Sarah Palin’s Surprising and Possibly Historic Run for the House

How a victory would set her apart from other unsuccessful postwar VP candidates

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KEY POINTS FROM THIS ARTICLE

— 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin surprised the political world when she announced a run to replace the late Don Young in Alaska’s at-large U.S. House seat.

— It’s not unusual for VP losers to subsequently win elected office, although in recent decades that has meant simply winning reelection to the job they held prior to being named to a presidential ticket.

— If Palin wins, she will set an obscure historical marker for unsuccessful postwar VP nominees.

Putting Palin’s House bid into historical context

We, like many others, were surprised by news that broke Friday evening: Sarah Palin, the 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee and a former governor of Alaska, is running to replace the late Rep. Don Young (R, AK-AL) in the U.S. House.

Despite becoming one of the most famous and polarizing politicians in America thanks to her position as John McCain’s running mate, Palin has not sought office in the nearly decade and a half since that contest. Palin flirted with running for president and, more recently, she expressed some interest in challenging Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK), who has problems on her right as she seeks reelection this year. But Palin finally announced another run for office following the death of Young, who held Alaska’s sole House seat for nearly half a century.

Palin is among roughly 50 candidates who are seeking to replace Young in a special election to be held this summer. Palin is clearly the most famous candidate running, but she also faces credible competition in a special election that will be the first test of Alaska’s new “top 4” election system: All candidates compete in a jungle primary, and the top 4 finishers advance to a general election featuring ranked-choice voting — we discussed the new system and the looming schedule when we reacted to Young’s death a couple of weeks ago.

So Palin, a lightning rod in American politics whose style in some ways provided a preview of eventual President Trump, is reentering electoral politics 14 years after she was part of John McCain’s losing ticket, and 13 years after she resigned Alaska’s governorship, acquiring a “quitter” label that she will have to deal with in her House campaign.

What struck us as odd about Palin’s House run is not only that she is trying to return to elected office so long after she reached some of the highest heights of American politics, but also that she is choosing to do so by running for the House, a less glamorous post than senator or governor (even though, in Alaska, it is a statewide elected position because the state only has a single House member). If Palin wins, her reward will be becoming a single member of a 435-member body.

This got us thinking — is there any recent precedent for what Palin is trying to do as a losing vice presidential nominee seeking a lower office more than a decade after leaving elected office? There aren’t any perfect comparisons, but the best parallels come from the 2 members of the losing 1984 Democratic presidential ticket: Walter Mondale and Geraldine Ferraro.

What follows is a brief history of post-World War II vice presidential nominees who were part of losing major-party tickets. We included 3 nominees who served as vice president but then were part of tickets that lost reelection: Vice Presidents Walter Mondale (won in 1976, lost in 1980), Dan Quayle (won in 1988, lost in 1992), and Mike Pence (won in 2016, lost in 2020).

One quick note before we begin. The election-by-election analysis here starts with 1948, the first presidential election held after World War II. Had we started earlier, we would have included some losing VPs who won different offices after being part of a losing presidential ticket. For instance, 1944 GOP vice presidential nominee John W. Bricker, then the governor of Ohio, left that office following his VP loss. Two years later, he was elected to the first of 2 terms in the U.S. Senate. Other losing VP nominees prior to World War II also won races for new offices later in their careers, including the longest-serving president — Franklin D. Roosevelt, who was the losing VP nominee in 1920 but later was elected governor of New York and then won 4 terms in the White House.

With that caveat out of the way, let’s look at the post-presidential campaign careers of the unsuccessful postwar VP nominees, a list that includes Palin and 18 others.

1948: Gov. Earl Warren (R-CA) ran “from safety” as Thomas Dewey’s (R) running mate on the 1948 ticket — he had won reelection to a 4-year term as governor in 1946, so he didn’t have to risk his position to run for VP (this will be a theme for many of the losing VP nominees on this list). Warren subsequently won a third term as governor in 1950 and then unsuccessfully sought the GOP presidential nomination in 1952, losing to Dwight D. Eisenhower. Ike appointed Warren as the Supreme Court’s chief justice in 1953; Warren led a progressive court for more than 15 years.

1952: First elected to the Senate in a 1946 special election and then reelected to a full term in 1948, Sen. John Sparkman (D-AL) was Adlai Stevenson’s running mate in 1952 — so he also ran for vice president in the middle of an existing term. Following his VP loss, Sparkman won several additional terms in the Senate before deciding not to seek another term in 1978.

1956: Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-TN) beat out then-Sen. John F. Kennedy (D-MA) and others for the VP nomination as Stevenson, again the Democratic nominee, deferred his choice to the Democratic National Convention delegates. Once again, the VP pick, Kefauver, was a sitting officeholder in the middle of his term. Kefauver remained in the Senate until his death in 1963.

1960: A former senator who lost his reelection bid to Kennedy in 1952, Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. (R) was on Richard Nixon’s ticket when Nixon narrowly lost to Kennedy. Lodge later served as ambassador to South Vietnam under both Presidents Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.

1964: Lodge also won the 1964 New Hampshire presidential primary as a write-in candidate, but he did not openly seek the office and the nomination went to Sen. Barry Goldwater (R-AZ), who selected Rep. William Miller (R, NY-40) as his running mate. Miller, who had also been chairman of the Republican National Committee, was from the more conservative wing of the GOP, just like Goldwater. He retired from politics following the ticket’s loss, and he later appeared as part of the American Express “do you know me?” advertising campaign that was a nod to his obscurity, even back then.

1968: After winning the vice presidency in 1964 and then winning the nomination to succeed Johnson, Hubert Humphrey picked Sen. Ed Muskie (D-ME) as his running mate. Muskie, another choice made “from safety,” unsuccessfully sought the Democratic presidential nomination in 1972 and remained in the Senate until he became Jimmy Carter’s secretary of state near the end of Carter’s term in office.

1972: George McGovern had 2 different running mates: McGovern eased out Sen. Thomas Eagleton (D-MO) after the revelation that he had been hospitalized several times for serious depressions and had undergone electric shock treatments. He was replaced by Sargent Shriver, who had previously served as director of the Peace Corps and who was John F. Kennedy’s brother-in-law. Eagleton remained in the Senate until 1987, after which he remained active in public life but did not seek office again. Shriver unsuccessfully sought the 1976 Democratic presidential nomination.

1976: Although he had chosen former New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller (R) as his vice president after ascending to the presidency following Richard Nixon’s resignation, Gerald Ford ran with then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-KS) in his unsuccessful bid for an elected term of his own as president. Dole had just won a narrow victory for a second Senate term in 1974, and he would remain in the Senate, eventually serving as the leader of the GOP Senate caucus, until 1996, when he resigned to focus on his presidential bid. Dole had won the GOP nomination that year after unsuccessfully seeking it in 1980 and 1988. Following Dole’s presidential loss, he did not seek office again.

1980: President Jimmy Carter and Vice President Walter Mondale lost their bid for reelection in 1980. Mondale would win the Democratic presidential nomination 4 years later, losing the general election in a landslide. Mondale later served in a couple of diplomatic posts during the Clinton administration. In 2002, Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN) died in a plane crash just 11 days before Election Day. Minnesota Democrats picked Mondale as a replacement candidate for Wellstone, but Mondale narrowly lost to Norm Coleman (R). While the circumstances are a lot different, Mondale’s last Senate run provides one parallel for Palin: The unexpected death of an incumbent opened the door for Mondale to attempt to return to public office, just like it has for Palin.

1984: Mondale made history in his landslide presidential loss, selecting Rep. Geraldine Ferraro (D, NY-9) as the first woman on a major-party presidential ticket. Ferraro later sought the 1992 and 1998 nomination for U.S. Senate for the right to challenge then-Sen. Al D’Amato (R-NY). Ferraro very narrowly lost in a crowded field in 1992 that included, among others, controversial civil rights leader Al Sharpton. Six years later, then-Rep. Chuck Schumer (D, NY-9) handily defeated Ferraro and then unseated D’Amato in the general election. Just like her ticket-mate, Mondale, Ferraro provides a bit of historical precedent for what Palin is trying to accomplish — running for a lower office after being the vice presidential nominee on a losing ticket.

1988: Despite being on a losing presidential ticket, Sen. Lloyd Bentsen (D-TX) was simultaneously reelected to the Senate from Texas in 1988. He became Treasury Secretary in 1993, following Bill Clinton’s presidential win. Bentsen served a couple of years in the post and then left politics.

1992: Following President George H.W. Bush’s loss in 1992, his vice president, Dan Quayle, sought the GOP presidential nomination in 2000, but he withdrew months before the primary voting started. Quayle, previously a senator from Indiana, moved to Arizona after leaving the vice presidency; he was mentioned at one time as a possible gubernatorial candidate in 2002, but he did not run. Quayle was in the news more recently because authors Bob Woodward and Robert Costa reported that Quayle advised then-Vice President Mike Pence that his role in the Jan. 6 Electoral College certification vote was purely ceremonial.

1996: After his loss as Bob Dole’s running mate, former congressman and Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Jack Kemp (R) did not seek office again.

2000: Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-CT) was concurrently reelected to the Senate in 2000, even as he and Al Gore lost the presidential election. He unsuccessfully sought the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. Two years later, Lieberman ran for another term in the Senate, but he lost to now-Gov. Ned Lamont (D-CT) in the primary in large part due to his support of the Iraq War. However, Lieberman was able to stay in the race as an independent, and he won reelection to the Senate anyway. Lieberman also was a contender for the GOP vice presidential nomination that went to Palin in 2008. Lieberman did not seek another term in the Senate in 2012.

2004: Sen. John Edwards (D-NC) announced in September 2003 that he would not seek a second term in the Senate, opting instead to focus on his presidential bid. He effectively finished as the runner-up to John Kerry, who picked Edwards as his running mate. Following the Kerry-Edwards ticket’s loss in 2004, Edwards ran again for president in 2008, but he was overshadowed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Edwards would later become a political pariah as details emerged of his fathering a child with a woman who was making documentary videos of his presidential campaign even as his now-deceased wife, Elizabeth, waged a public battle with cancer. Edwards has not sought public office since the 2008 campaign.

2008: After losing in 2008, Palin resigned the governorship in summer 2009. As noted above, she declined to run again for office until now.

2012: Mitt Romney’s running mate, Rep. Paul Ryan (R, WI-1), is another running mate who was able to win reelection while simultaneously losing the presidential race. Ryan later became Speaker of the House before deciding not to run again for the House in 2018. Despite first winning election to the House in 1998, Ryan is still young — 52 — so he could still plausibly seek office (perhaps even the presidency) in the future.

2016: Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) ran for the vice presidency from safety in 2016, and he won a second Senate term in 2018. His Senate seat is on the ballot again next cycle.

2020: After his decision to respect his purely ceremonial role in the 2020 Electoral College certification vote, it seems likely that former Vice President Mike Pence will not be Donald Trump’s running mate if Trump seeks and wins the 2024 Republican presidential nomination. Pence could be a candidate in 2024 himself and has remained politically active, speaking all over the country (including at the University of Virginia next Tuesday).

Conclusion

There are 19 vice presidential nominees noted above who lost post-World War II elections (this excludes Eagleton, who was not on the ticket when McGovern lost in November 1972).

Of these 19 losing VP nominees, several sought the presidency, but none have won it, and only 2 — Mondale and Dole — won his or her party’s presidential nomination following a loss as a running mate.

Roughly half — 9 of the 19 — won reelection to the office they held prior to being named a vice presidential nominee, either during that same election cycle or in the years that followed (and some won multiple additional terms following a VP loss). However, all 9 of those simply won reelection to posts they already held prior to becoming vice president, and none of them won election to a different office later in their careers.

Only 2 of these 19 individuals sought election as non-incumbents to down-ballot offices following their losses as VP, and both of them lost: Ferraro in the 1992 and 1998 New York Senate races, and Mondale as a replacement candidate for Wellstone in the 2002 Minnesota Senate race.

So if Palin is successful in her House election, she will have done something that no other unsuccessful postwar VP candidate has done: win an election for a position that she did not already hold prior to being named a major-party running mate.