When is an endorsement not really an endorsement? When the endorser suggests he regrets doing so -- and then says he doesn't plan to lift a finger to help.
That's what National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair John Cornyn, R-Texas, did this week, and the ramifications for Republicans could be far-reaching.
The extent to which Cornyn has diminished his committee's ability to influence GOP primaries cannot be underestimated.
The question came up Monday during a press conference in which Cornyn was trying to tiptoe through a Florida Senate primary that has turned upside-down since last spring, when his committee reflexively endorsed one-time front-runner Gov. Charlie Crist over former state House Speaker Marco Rubio. With polls now showing Crist trailing badly, Cornyn candidly admitted this week that he's only sticking with the embattled governor because he's "honor-bound" to do so.
Cornyn also dismissively explained the process by which he chose Crist over Rubio last year. "I looked around to see who was the most popular Republican in the state and somebody who was a good fundraiser, and that was Charlie Crist," Cornyn told reporters. "And selfishly, given the limited resources we have and the national scope of our responsibilities here, I didn't want to spend any money in Florida if we didn't have to help. So Charlie Crist seemed like the ideal candidate. This had nothing to do with Marco Rubio, who I subsequently met and have a lot of respect for."
Cornyn then took additional teeth out of his committee's nod, saying it doesn't mean they'll spend any money in the Florida primary. And, he said, "it doesn't mean we're going to be saying anything bad about Marco Rubio."
Cornyn, of course, made clear last fall that the NRSC won't spend money in contested primaries. So his comments this week about financing weren't new. And just because Cornyn won't "spend" money in Florida doesn't mean he won't help Crist raise money. Following Cornyn's press conference, the St. Petersburg Times published an NRSC memo detailing eight fundraisers planned for Crist in the next two weeks across Florida.
But the extent to which Cornyn has diminished his committee's ability to influence GOP primaries cannot be underestimated. The NRSC chair not only neutralized the significance of his Florida nod, but he also lifted the curtain on the criteria used to determine many such endorsements. In a year when establishment candidates are already on the defensive, Cornyn's words could hurt other mainstream candidates who have drawn key establishment support -- folks like former New Hampshire Attorney General Kelly Ayotte and Kentucky Secretary of State Trey Grayson, both of whom face tough primary battles.
Cornyn's faint praise also could intensify calls for Crist to run as an independent, since polls show he has been largely abandoned by conservatives angered over his support for President Obama's economic stimulus plan. It's that support for Obama that appeals most to independent voters, who make up a sizable bloc in the Sunshine State. Indeed, a recent Kos/Research 2000 poll showed a three-way race could spell disaster for Republicans, with Crist winning 32 percent of the vote, Rep. Kendrick Meek (D) at 31 percent and Rubio trailing at 27 percent. Recent polls of a two-way race show either Republican outpacing Meek by double digits.
But Crist dismissed the idea Tuesday in a radio interview with the Washington Times. "What I'm doing is running as a Republican. I'm proud of my party, proud to be from the party of Abraham Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt," he said.
Notably absent from Crist's list, however, was Cornyn... or any of the Republicans he hopes to serve with on Capitol Hill.