In this race, GOP senators are slow to offer endorsements
WASHINGTON — Ted Cruz is arguably the most unpopular guy in the Senate, but that hasn’t discouraged him from seeking his colleagues’ endorsements as he runs for president. So far, no one’s bitten.
On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders has also failed to land a single endorsement from a chamber colleague, while his rival Hillary Clinton has locked up the support of 38 out of 44 Democrats.
Soliciting congressional colleagues’ votes of confidence is a humbling quadrennial rite for presidential candidates, more akin to a middle-school popularity contest than weighty matters of state.
This time around, the social whirl is even more complex because of the bumper crop of senators seeking the White House. For Republicans, having to pick a favorite among four of their own colleagues who were vying for the GOP nomination can be downright awkward.
“I don’t like to upset anybody. So if I endorse, I upset three [Senate] colleagues alone, let alone the rest of them,” said Senator Michael Enzi, a Wyoming Republican.
One month before the Iowa caucuses, just 11 Republican senators have bestowed endorsements in the primary, spreading their stamps of approval among five candidates, including former Florida governor Jeb Bush and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee. Most are holding back, hesitant to commit in a field without an establishment front-runner.
In contrast, by this time in the 2012 campaign, former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney had already racked up nearly a dozen Senate endorsements. And nearly as many senators had coalesced around John McCain by January 2008. Both men eventually ended up being the Republican nominee.
“I don’t think there’s any senator I know who wants to endorse Senator Cruz. That’s just a reality,” McCain said in an interview off the Senate floor just before Congress adjourned for the holidays.
Cruz, in second place nationally after Donald Trump in public opinion polls, has angered his Republican colleagues by repeatedly attacking their conservative credentials and is considered to have damaged the party brand when he forced a government shutdown his first year in the Senate.
Some Republicans in Washington joke that Cruz is so hated that if members were forced to choose between Cruz and Democratic Leader Harry Reid as Senate leader, Reid would win 99 to 1.
While Cruz takes public pride in the fact that he has few friends in the clubby Senate, the Texas Republican is quietly soliciting endorsements even as he campaigns as the outsider best positioned to take on what he frequently derides as the “Washington cartel.”
A key coup for Cruz would be securing the support of Mike Lee of Utah, who has aligned himself with Cruz on many occasions, including the 2013 shutdown.
Cruz “asks pretty much every time they talk,” said Conn Carroll, Lee’s communication director. “They are definitely good friends. They exchange birthday presents.”
But Caroll said Lee has yet to make up his mind about whom to support.
At a recent campaign rally in Alabama, Cruz jokingly dangled a Cabinet position — secretary of homeland security — before Jeff Sessions after the Alabama senator introduced Cruz. (Sessions, who also appeared at a previous Trump rally in Mobile, has yet to endorse anyone.)
The most popular Republican senator running so far? Marco Rubio of Florida, with three Senate endorsements. Kentucky’s Rand Paul has the backing of just his fellow home state senator, majority leader Mitch McConnell.
James Lankford of Oklahoma said all four GOP candidates have asked for his endorsement. “They are all good friends. I’ve talked to everybody,” said Lankford, who is staying out of the endorsement game for now.
For Rob Portman of Ohio, the calculus is awkward because “one of my friends and my governor is running,” he said, referring to Governor John Kasich, as he and other colleagues crowded into a Capitol elevator on their way to a Republican luncheon last week.
“And some of us have tough races next year,” someone piped up from the back, referring to Portman’s own reelection campaign.
No one wants to see his or her political capital plummet.
“The dumbest thing about endorsing early is if you pick the wrong horse, you’re going to have to ride him out of the barn, not into the barn,” said Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican, adding that he’s going to bow out of the endorsement game altogether because he, too, is running for reelection in 2016.
Then there’s the question of whether these sought-after endorsements even matter in this anti-Washington age.
“Generally speaking, they’re worthless,” McCain noted — including his own. As for why he originally endorsed Lindsey Graham, who consistently lagged in the polls before dropping out of the race this week? “He’s my dearest friend.”
Richard Burr of North Carolina pinched his thumb and index finger into a zero, displaying his disdain for the endorsement process as he rode the underground tram from the Capitol back to his Senate office building.
“There’s a very anti-incumbent mood in the country and given how that has played out in the presidential race, I don’t know why any presidential candidate would seek the endorsement of any member of Congress,” Burr said.
The most pivotal Senate endorsement in recent campaign history came from the late Edward M. Kennedy in January 2008. The Massachusetts senator and leading liberal rocked the Washington establishment by choosing then-senator Barack Obama over Clinton, the front-runner, despite numerous entreaties from Bill Clinton on behalf of his wife.
Kennedy’s endorsement changed the speculative nature of Obama’s candidacy by assuring the wary Washington establishment that the young senator was indeed ready for the presidency, said David Axelrod, Obama’s chief campaign strategist.
“It was the ultimate Good Housekeeping seal of approval,” Axelrod said in an interview. “There is no one of that stature to confer endorsements anymore.”
Sanders shouldn’t count on anything like that happening among his Democratic colleagues this time. The closest the Vermont socialist has come to receiving a Senate endorsement comes from a Republican climate change denier who stands on the opposite side of Sanders on all key issues.
“I don’t agree with Bernie Sanders on anything but he’s not a hypocrite. A lot of the rest of them are. He is what he says,” said James Inhofe of Oklahoma.
Inhofe said that he admires Sanders’s sincerity so much that he readily praised him in two recent media interviews.
The only GOP senator whose endorsement may carry weight this cycle, McCain said, is that of Kelly Ayotte, because her popularity in New Hampshire could sway voters in the first primary state.
To do so, though, would be risky for Ayotte, who is running for reelection against Democratic Governor Maggie Hassan, because she would automatically risk alienating supporters of other presidential candidates.
Even Graham, who counts Ayotte amongst his closest friends, would not say before he dropped out whether he asked her directly to endorse him — even after going to the movies with Ayotte and her children.
“I want Kelly Ayotte to win and I don’t think she should endorse anybody,” Graham said. “She doesn’t need to get involved in this food fight.”