Palin earned high-wattage allies in early nominating states of Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina should she seek the White House in two years. The 2008 Republican vice presidential nominee backed winning candidates from Washington state to Florida, but her political heft went to like-minded conservatives in states that could prove critical to a presidential campaign.
"She's got a big following in Iowa and she's generated a lot of enthusiasm and helped the party," said Terry Branstad, the Palin-backed former Iowa governor who won back his former office on Tuesday. "Gov. Palin has a following, so her endorsement can make a difference."
But, like other early state king makers, Branstad hastened to add that he had the help of other presidential hopefuls: Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour and Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal. He also lists New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, who maintains he won't be a candidate.
Palin, a former Alaska governor and now a Fox News contributor, hasn't said whether she would run, but her endorsements have earned her sway among newly elected officials in Congress and statehouses. For instance, she backed Branstad in his primary and endorsed Kelly Ayotte, the former New Hampshire attorney general, in her primary for an open Senate seat, which she won Tuesday.
"Conservatives in New Hampshire and across the country view Gov. Palin as a leader in the movement to make government smaller and more accountable," Ayotte said Wednesday. "Her support made a significant impact in my campaign, and I was honored to have it."
Palin's defense of South Carolina Gov.-elect Nikki Haley during allegations of an affair helped Haley win the GOP nomination and then make history as the first-in-the-South presidential nominating state's first female and first Indian-American chief.
Yet Palin's endorsements helped nominate tea party-backed candidates in races that, had the Republican won, the GOP would have had a clearer path to the majority in the Senate. Sharron Angle of Nevada and Christine O'Donnell of Delaware lost their bids in states once considered prime pickup opportunities for the GOP.
And in Alaska, the Palin-backed candidate who defeated Sen. Lisa Murkowski in the Republican primary looked to deliver Palin a personal setback. Republican Joe Miller, who defeated Murkowski in their primary and prompted Murkowski to run as a write-in candidate, appeared in an uphill race as officials reviewed ballots.
Palin's bottom-line, though, had Tuesday night as a win for her. In races called, her backed candidates won 37 of 52 House contests. She backed seven victorious gubernatorial candidates. In the Senate, she went six for 10 in races.
"I feel really good because, I think being able to have a platform — or a megaphone, in some sense — to get a message out there that commonsense conservatives have some solutions to get our country back on the right track," Palin told Fox News. "Having that platform to get to send that message and support people with those commonsense ideals and ideas, it's been refreshing. It's been freeing. And I think it's been successful."
Potential presidential contenders typically use the midterm elections to build up favors. As he did during 2006, Romney has again backed candidates from statehouses to U.S. House in early voting states. Barbour, who leads the Republican governors' campaign committee, earned loyalty from the slate of state chiefs who have won office during his tenure.
Pawlenty, another potential 2012 candidate, also has set up state-specific political committees.
Pawlenty and Romney both have an established presence on the ground in New Hampshire, with advisers in place who would become campaigns' senior leaders if they decide to run early next year. Palin, however, has had a mishmash of organization, favoring Tweets over formal announcements and Facebook postings that give candidates little — if any — time to prepare.
For instance, a vague Palin message on Twitter left O'Donnell unsure if she had the tea party darling's backing. A day later, Palin elaborated on her support in a race that proved embarrassing to the GOP establishment.
Nine-term moderate Republican Rep. Mike Castle was Washington's picked candidate in that Delaware race for the seat once served by Vice President Joe Biden. But O'Donnell, who had run before, captured tea party momentum and dealt him a surprise defeat in the GOP primary. GOP leaders walked away from the race; Democrat Chris Coons solidly trounced her on Tuesday.
Similarly, Palin helped tea party-backed Angle win the nomination in Nevada over a former state party chairwoman.
Republicans who once saw a potential pathway to unseating Sen. Harry Reid in Nevada and taking the chamber's majority scrambled to deal with a candidate who warned voters would exercise their "Second Amendment remedies" — that would be a call to arms — if government isn't brought to heel.
No matter, though. Palin was able to rally tea party activists in Nevada, another state that goes early in the presidential nominating process.