Heading into a run-off after garnering five percent fewer votes in the general election than his opponent, Houston mayoral hopeful Gene Locke made a calculation. Locke, a Democrat running in a non-partisan race, sought and won the endorsement of Steven Hotze — a local conservative kingmaker known for his anti-gay rights activism.
While it may have secured some conservative votes, the fallout in Houston’s left-leaning community has been dramatic (Locke’s opponent, fellow Democrat Annise Parker, is openly gay). At Large #1 candidate Stephen Costello, included in Hotze’s list of endorsements, felt compelled to release a statement saying, “I did not seek this endorsement and I specifically asked not to be endorsed by Mr. Hotze.”
It’s certainly much ado about one man’s opinion.
“Endorsements are exactly that,” says lobbyist and former state Rep. Pat Haggerty, R-El Paso. “They’re just what one guy thinks about a particular race. People that like that individual might listen to it. For people that don’t like that individual, it’s not going to make any difference.”
While they certainly provide daily fodder for campaign news coverage, there’s no guarantee that an endorsement will translate to anything significant for a candidate, let alone electoral victory.
“They give a sense of momentum,” says Republican consultant Reggie Bashur. “A lot of politics is perception. Certainly in the initial stages of a campaign, perception is pretty critical. Endorsements help create a sense of positive movement.”
In need of a little positive momentum with just under four months before the primary and consecutive polls showing her behind by double digits, U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison stood with former Vice President Dick Cheney in front of a moderate crowd in Houston’s Hobby Airport as he denigrated her opponent, Gov. Rick Perry, as “a real talker” and said, "When it comes to being conservative, Kay Bailey Hutchison is the real deal."
A high profile endorsement to be sure, though reports of the event almost universally noted Perry’s close match in his endorsement from über-conservative vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Democratic consultant Harold Cook says, “It’s one of those verifying moments where somebody who is trying to convince conservatives that she is one of them has a leading conservative come in and say it. It’s certainly worth more than if she says it, but in the final analysis, is it a game changer? No.”
In fact, Perry and Hutchison may be beyond help by virtue of their own success.
Though he generally believes that endorsements “don’t matter much,” Cook says there are two exceptions. “When a campaign is just getting underway with a relative unknown running as the candidate, endorsements by well-known established people can help with primary voters,” he says. “Then, at the last of a very close race, endorsements by an acknowledged overwhelming leader in whatever the target market is can matter.”
So, why bother?
Haggerty recounts a time when a political operative friend asked why he was putting up signs all over the place and got the answer, “Well, we’ve noticed over the years that the people who put up signs win.” The emphasis on endorsements may come from a similar impulse. “When you win,” says Haggerty, “you say, ‘I must have been endorsed by all the right people.’”
The weight of history isn’t so easily shrugged off. “It used to be that if you got the El Paso Times’ endorsement, it meant you probably were going to lose,” Haggerty says, noting that different endorsements have different values. “If you are going to get endorsed,” he says, “get endorsed by the doctors or the Texas Medical Association, because everybody likes their doctors and people in the organization are going to listen to their own leadership. That kind of endorsement has power. It’s a totally different deal. If it means something in my back pocket, then okay.”
For the record, Perry has been endorsed by the TMA, but the signal from the leadership wasn’t entirely clear because some prominent members broke off to join a “Physicians for Kay” coalition.
Speaking of back pockets — some endorsements pull in more dollars than votes, which is often exactly what a candidate may want at the time, even if it's not the public proclamation plastered across the front page or a sure-fire route to victory.
“Even at the height of Bush’s unpopularity, there were still Republican candidates for Congress begging Bush to very quietly come into their districts and be a headliner for a fundraiser,” says Cook, who thinks that donors are probably less incentivized to give money to an out-of-office Cheney. “While those guys were still in the White House, they had a lot of sway. That’s not really about the endorsement. I suppose if you squint your eyes just right, you could say it changes history because more funding allows the candidate to communicate better. But, remember, it’s not like they were asking them to do press for them — in fact, they were begging them not to — they just wanted the money.”
On the other side of the aisle, Tom Schieffer’s recently ended gubernatorial campaign benefited greatly from the support of highly respected Democratic businessman Lynden Olson. “It’s about signaling to the big contributor community that this guy’s okay. Most voters don’t know who Lyndon Olson he is,” says Cook, “but it’s not about the voters in that case, either.” And, in the end, the voters weren’t excited enough to sustain the effort.
While stepping aside, Schieffer sought to put his influence to use, and so he issued an endorsement of his own: Houston Mayor Bill White for Governor. This was quickly followed by similar endorsements of White from other prominent Democrats like Austin state Sen. Kirk Watson and El Paso state Sen. Eliot Shapleigh. With these and others at his back, even before he officially announces his campaign, White has generated significant momentum.
As for his future replacement at City Hall, time will tell if the late-term endorsement of a man of Hotze's caché is enough to sway the close race. If it does, it will certainly help Texas political observers come up with that elusive example of an endorsement that mattered.
“Is there any one endorsement that just makes a difference in a campaign?” muses Bashur. “I have a hard time thinking of one.”