Members Often See Their Political Stock Rise and Fall With White House Endorsements

Posted January 15, 2004 at 3:26pm

Though Members of Congress typically try to avoid gambling with their political fortunes, every four years many lawmakers dare to step out of their cautious bubbles in an attempt to catch a ride on a rising presidential star.

It’s a potentially risky phenomenon, endorsing just one out of a handful of your party’s presidential hopefuls. But the potential for political gain — as well as the personal pride at having aligned yourself with the victor — are too overwhelming for some Members to resist.

“I guess it’s the competitiveness in us all. You always want to feel that you’re picking the winner,” said former House Republican Conference Chairman J.C. Watts (Okla.), who was one of the earliest supporters of George W. Bush’s 2000 campaign.

“But Members are not usually going to endorse in a way that makes them vulnerable,” Watts added in an interview. “Some people will endorse because they think it’s good for their career or for building their political empire.”

With an incumbent Republican president in the White House, GOP Members are happily off the hook this year. But the 252 Congressional Democrats and two affiliated Independents have eight prospective presidential candidates to choose among, and starting out early with a winner could translate into some big political paybacks in the future.

On the flip side, picking a loser could put Members on political ice for the duration of a future president’s administration.

“You get into the conflict of it. Your guy loses. The guy you weren’t with wins, and he always remembers that you diddled him,” said former Sen. Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.).

Whether lawmakers endorse for the sheer idealism of picking their favorite, think they will get perks from their candidate’s administration, feel they owe someone for past political favors or just want to be with a winner, there’s still the prospect that by sticking your neck out for one candidate, another could go for your jugular.

That may be why nearly half of the Congressional Democrats have so far declined to pick a candidate.

Still, more than 130 Democratic lawmakers have decided to take the plunge during this election season in the hopes of adding whatever momentum they can to their preferred candidate’s campaign.

“When I endorsed, which was a long time ago, it had a different impact than endorsements now,” explained Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), whose April 2003 endorsement of Howard Dean’s presidential campaign made her the first Member to publicly support the former Vermont governor.

“He needed some validation from [Congress],” Lofgren said of her initially risky endorsement, which came long before Dean was the frontrunner. “It was more important for this guy to get what little oomph I could give him.”

If Dean wins the Democratic nomination, Lofgren could see her political influence rise with his, particularly if he goes on to win the general election in November. Still, Lofgren insists she’s not looking for much in the way of perks from any potential Dean administration.

“I asked for nothing and was offered nothing,” said Lofgren, though she added: “I hope that when Governor Dean is president he’ll answer my phone calls, and I think he will.”

Watts agreed that joining a campaign early does not always mean you’re looking to score a Cabinet nomination or some other plum post.

“I didn’t feel like they owed me a Cabinet post or anything else,” Watts said of Bush’s administration.

While Lofgren and Watts described an easy process that led to their decisions to endorse, some Members’ decisions are fraught with much more anxiety than others.

Lofgren recounted a recent conversation she had with another Democratic lawmaker, whom she said wants to support Dean. However, the lawmaker has felt some pressure to endorse former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt (Mo.) because of past political favors.

Indeed, Gephardt led all candidates in Democratic Congressional endorsements for months in 2003, largely because of his influence as the former Democratic leader. But just last week, Dean finally outpaced Gephardt in Member endorsements. [IMGCAP(1)]

To be sure, fearing the wrath of another powerful lawmaker who happens to be running for president is not unusual.

Simpson recalled how former Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.) fretted over his support for the short-lived 1996 presidential candidacy of then-Sen. Phil Gramm (R-Texas). Telling Simpson that he had gone “to the hilt” for Gramm over his party’s eventual nominee, then-Sen. Bob Dole (Kan.), Smith worried that Dole’s ability to quash legislation as Majority Leader would be used against him.

But Simpson said he advised Smith to go to Dole and explain his fear of retribution, and to Smith’s surprise, he found Dole willing to forgive and forget.

Simpson and others said the key to making sure you do not end up in the dog house after the primaries is to approach the candidates you will not be endorsing.

“They’re hurt, but they appreciate it,” said Simpson, who chose Ronald Reagan over longtime friend George H.W. Bush in the 1980 GOP presidential primaries. He later chose Bush over Dole in 1988.

“All you have to do is be honest,” said Simpson. “You don’t get gas or ulcers if you do it that way.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) went all out for the 2000 presidential campaign of his friend, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), even when most of the GOP had anointed current President Bush the presumptive nominee.

Hagel noted that “if you go out and trash the other guy, then you put yourself in a position for some retribution” from the eventual winner.

That’s why Hagel called Bush — then the governor of Texas — when he became McCain’s campaign co-chairman and told the eventual president his plans.

“I explained that if he, Governor Bush, wins the nomination, then I would work hard to get him elected,” Hagel recalled.

That extra courtesy, plus a desire by Bush to unify the Republican Party after a divisive primary, helped net Hagel a spot on the short list of vice presidential candidates.

While Hagel took a big gamble by backing McCain and ended up relatively unscathed, he still warns colleagues that it’s treacherous business.

“In a situation where you have a number of colleagues running for president like we do on the Democratic side in the Senate … I don’t see how you gain in any particular way because you’ve had to tell the other two or three guys that you’re not endorsing them,” Hagel said.

That might be why many Members go for the safe bet, sticking with a home-state colleague unless he or she drops out of the race — or choosing the candidate to whom they owe the greatest political favors.

For example, of Sen. John Kerry’s (D) Member endorsements, half are from other lawmakers in the Massachusetts delegation. Similarly, three-fourths of Sen. John Edwards’ (D) Congressional supporters are members in the North Carolina delegation.

Retired Gen. Wesley Clark, who originally hails from Arkansas, and Connecticut Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman also had no trouble locking up the endorsements of their home states’ Democrats.

Member endorsements from other states and political persuasions are the ones who can potentially make a difference in a campaign, claimed Clark devotee Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). Emanuel said he believes endorsements can be “symbolic for candidates” and show how they’re “trying to reach across ideological and political camps,” as he contends Clark has done.

All in all, most Members said their endorsements are more about lending their favorite candidate the credibility that comes with having other elected leaders support him or her.

“I’d rather have an endorsement than not have it,” said Watts. “You can frame an endorsement any way you want. You could get an endorsement from the local dogcatcher and make that into a major endorsement.”

Still, not many insiders argue that endorsements, even those of Democratic Party heavyweights such as former Vice President Al Gore or Iowa Sen. Tom Harkin (both of whom have endorsed Dean), have the power alone to carry a candidate to victory.

Candidates “all want a guy who’s very, very popular, but then they get a list of [endorsements] who are less than stellar in the firmament of their party,” explained Simpson.

Even so, those very same candidates who may be disappointed with their endorsement list will seek out even the lowliest of potential helpers.

“It’s a pathetic process,” said Simpson. “It’s begging is what it is.”