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Are Congressional Endorsements 'Overrated'?

Sen. Judd Gregg gambled by endorsing former Gov. Mitt Romney in Tuesday's New Hampshire Republican primary, and he lost. Romney finished second to the surging Sen. John McCain. Two other New Hampshire lawmakers, Democratic freshman Reps. Carol Shea-Porter and Paul Hodes, rode the wrong horse by backing Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), who finished second to Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), the new "Comeback Kid."

Every lawmaker uses a different calculus to determine whether he or she should wade into the fray. Hey, it's great to be with a winner, and who wouldn't want to have all that easy access to a new administration if their candidate makes it to the White House? But the downside is that there are many losers and only one winner, so the odds of coming down on the right candidate who can win the party nomination and the general election are long indeed.

Some, like Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), discreetly stay on the sidelines and endorse nobody. Sununu is locked in one of the toughest Senate re-election campaigns this year and needs to focus like a laser on his campaign instead of dabbling in presidential politics. So while Gregg was frequently shepherding Romney from one campaign appearance to another, Sununu was keeping his head down.

A look at Roll Call's Endorsement Watch shows similar splits elsewhere.

South Carolina Rep. Bob Inglis (R), for example, said he endorsed former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee because of his basic "comfort with him as a person and his positions," and the lawmaker said he was pleased Huckabee is "creating momentum by message rather than money."

While the benefits are tangible for the endorsee, the situation can be muddled for the endorser -- especially if the lawmaker ends up backing the wrong candidate.

"The old adage is, 'You're not guaranteed they're friends, but you are guaranteed they're enemies,'" Inglis said with a laugh, meaning that candidates you back won't necessarily reward you but the ones you oppose surely will punish you for your decision.

"I can't worry too much about that," Inglis said.

But will Inglis' endorsement -- or that of any other lawmaker -- really help put Huckabee on the general election ballot? After all, the Arkansan won Iowa without any help from Capitol Hill. And Hillary Clinton took New Hampshire last night with zero Hill endorsements in that state.

"I don't think they're dispositive, that's for sure," Inglis said. "I don't think a member of Congress sways their district. ... I think endorsements generally are overrated."

Back when presidential nominations were sometimes decided at party conventions, members really did have some clout. "The old conventional wisdom is that [member endorsements] matter because they're Superdelegates," said Steve Elmendorf, who worked on the presidential campaigns of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and then-Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Now that nominations are decided well before the conventions, lawmakers still have some cachet because "they're all opinion leaders," Elmendorf said.

Members of Congress -- successful ones, anyway -- usually have their own little political fiefdoms back home. They develop networks of aides, volunteers and donors and cultivate relationships with the local media, all of which can be utilized on behalf of a member's chosen presidential candidate. Lawmakers can also serve as surrogates at campaign events, in media interviews and on donor calls.

Iowa Rep. Leonard Boswell (D), who endorsed Clinton and then watched her finish a disappointing third in his state, is unconcerned about retribution.

"I think everybody understands the process ... and whoever gets the [Democratic] nomination will have my support," Boswell said. "So I don't anticipate any problem there."

Some Members in key early states decide that it's not worth the risk of offending anyone by picking sides. A handful of lawmakers, like Democratic Rep. James Clyburn in South Carolina, are so important in their states or even on the national stage that they really can't endorse. None of the top four Hill leaders - Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is expected to pick a White House favorite while the primaries are still competitive.

But Iowa Rep. Steve King (R), who endorsed Republican Fred Thompson only to watch him lose, believes his longstanding activity in state politics and what he called his "extraordinary access to the candidates" made it incumbent on him to pick a side.

"I had an obligation to step up and make a decision and do it early enough for people to see it," King said, adding that he was convinced Thompson would have finished lower than third place if King and his supporters hadn't mobilized on his behalf.

Even if that's true, King's backing obviously didn't push Thompson into victory lane. Nor did Iowa Rep. Bruce Braley (D) put ex-Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) over the top on Saturday. So should Iowa Rep. Dave Loebsack (D) get any credit for astutely picking Obama? And did endorsements -- or lack thereof -- matter in New Hampshire on Tuesday?

Probably not, but South Carolina and Michigan are just around the corner.

-- Ben Pershing

By Ben Pershing  |  January 9, 2008; 12:15 PM ET
Categories:  2008 Campaign  
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Kerry to Endorse Obama

Are Congressional Endorsements 'Overrated'?


Posted by: PollM | January 10, 2008 11:35 AM | Report abuse

From experience - endorsements CAN work on a personal level. Small Town personal endorsements that is. A trusted friend or newspaper can go a long way in helping someone make up their mind, especially when they're paying marginal attention to a campaign. But a big box celeb endorsement? You're better off with a good half time add during the super bowl.

Posted by: JDolza | January 11, 2008 6:48 PM | Report abuse

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