There’s a studied and understated estrangement between congressional Republicans and the party’s presidential candidates.
The front-runner, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, isn’t seeking endorsements from House and Senate Republicans as avidly as he did in 2007.
Former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty is also taking his time. And congressional Republicans are holding back, waiting to see if the field is settled or if Govs. Rick Perry of Texas or former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin will shake things up.
But choppy campaign waters aren’t the only factor. Washington is universally unpopular and the tea party movement dislikes any whiff of Beltway meddling. At the state level, that kind of revulsion fueled the rise of Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., as the GOP nominee against his state’s sitting governor, Charlie Crist. It also propelled Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., to the GOP nomination last year against Secretary of State Trey Greyson even though Greyson had the backing of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., Another factor is Republicans in D.C. don’t want to jump too soon or in the wrong direction.
“If an incumbent picks the wrong horse, in this day and age where impressions can be set so swiftly and permanently, such a decision could come back to bite them politically,” said Eric Ueland, a vice president at the Duberstein Group and former chief of staff to former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist. A lot has changed since 2007, when Republican White House contenders were crawling over Capitol Hill to win the backing of GOP lawmakers. Romney was borderline obsessed with beating Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at the endorsement game, say veterans of the former Massachusetts governor’s campaign.
The strategy worked. By November of 2007, Romney had the endorsement of 38 Hill Republicans in the House or Senate to McCain’s 28. A lot of good it did Romney. He won 11 primaries and caucuses (but not the biggies in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina or Florida) and dropped out in early February.
Romney’s taken that lesson to heart this cycle and is gradually rolling out endorsements, doing so last week in Michigan, Nevada and Florida. So far, he’s got just four Hill GOPers publicly on his team: Rep. Joe Heck of Nevada, and Florida U.S. Reps. Tom Rooney, Connie Mack, and Alan Crenshaw. Two of those—Mack and Crenshaw—are 2008 holdovers.
Romney wanted Hill backing in 2007 for a number of reasons: to undermine and aggravate McCain, who even had trouble winning endorsements from members of the Arizona delegation; to win validation he thought would give him access to donors and grassroots activists; and to elevate his name-recognition.
As it turned out, the lawmakers who backed Romney didn’t deliver money, organization or votes and the time and effort required to curry favor of the Hill cost Romney’s campaign valuable time and sometimes created conflicts over statewide strategy.
“We’d spend a lot of time talking to members and then sometimes there would be a disagreement about what to do and where to go in a certain state,” said Kevin Madden, a top Romney spokesman in 2008 and now an informal adviser. “Sometimes it was like ‘Who is running this campaign?’”
It’s not that endorsements don’t have any value, but they vary in degree of enthusiasm and real-world political strength. Carl Forti, who ran Romney’s political operation, said some early endorsements paid dividends. “When you are relatively unknown, as we were, getting endorsements in key states it is helpful,” Forti said. “The difference now is this battle is just starting. This fight was taking place in January, February and March of 2007. And it seems members of Congress are giving their endorsements up less easily.”
Pawlenty is returning to D.C. Tuesday for his third former round of meeting with Hill Republicans. He’s scheduled to spend his time on the Senate side. So far, Pawlenty’s met with about 40 House and Senate GOPers. His priority now, though, is raising money and hitting the circuit in Iowa and New Hampshire.
“Our priority is actual voters,” said Pawlenty spokesman Alex Conant. “With endorsements, it’s quality of quantity.”
Conant said Pawlenty is not striving to out-distance Romney in Hill endorsements. Right now, he has three: Minnesota Reps. John Kline and Erik Paulsen and South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson.
“Joe Wilson is an endorsement in a pivotal early primary state,” Conant said. “But we know we’re not going to win this nomination with a single endorsement.”
And that’s where the endorsement game is right now. Single digits. And the final score, to the degree it matters, won’t be settled until the World Series.
This article appears in the June 20, 2011, edition of NJ Daily.