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Endorsing Today With an Eye Toward Tomorrow

Endorsements aren't always — or even usually — about the person being endorsed. And in a season with more than its share of statewide officials praising legislators, it's worth asking why.

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Political endorsements say as much about the endorser as they do about the endorsee.

Helping someone in a tough race — or even appearing to lend support — is a basic form of political trading.

That’s why Comptroller Susan Combs, Attorney General Greg Abbott, Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples and Gov. Rick Perry have been so busy this spring. Combs and Staples each want to be the next lieutenant governor of Texas, assuming Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst wins the United States Senate race. Abbott is not so secretly angling for the governor’s job, hoping ever so gently that Perry will move on when that post is on the ballot again in 2014.

Perry is trying to stay alive after appearing as a paper tiger in the presidential primaries. He looked great in advance of that race, appealing to social conservatives, the Tea Party folks, fiscal conservatives and evangelicals. He’s got a twang that’s familiar in the southern states dear to Republican office-seekers. Nice-looking guy, able to raise money. It all seemed just right on the drawing board.

Unfortunately for the governor, it didn’t work anywhere else.

Now he’s back, with a legislative session in front of him and a herd of lawmakers and lobbyists who suspect they’re working with a lame duck. Perry is responding with the usual gambits. He let it be known that he’s thinking about running for re-election. He publicly didn’t rule out the idea of another presidential run in 2016. He presented candidates and officeholders with a “budget compact” — a set of promises against new taxes and spending and in favor of protecting the state’s Rainy Day Fund. And he started handing out endorsements.

Perry’s chosen candidates are interesting, and somewhat risky. He endorsed state Rep. Wayne Christian, R-Center, last week, and is traveling to Marshall next month — home of Christian’s opponent, Chris Paddie — in a race where much of the political establishment is backing the challenger. That’s the same set of political action committees and trade groups that have more or less fallen in line behind the governor for the last several years. To be fair, they were on Paddie’s side before Perry put his arm around Christian.

Combs, trying to establish her bona fides with the party’s conservatives as well as tending her statewide network for a future race, also endorsed Christian. The local state senator, Kevin Eltife, R-Tyler, endorsed Paddie.

Likewise, Perry and Combs endorsed Rep. James White, R-Hillister, over Rep. Mike "Tuffy" Hamilton, R-Mauriceville. White is positioned as the more conservative of the two, and the establishment is split.

It might work out for the endorsees, and it might not. For the endorsers, it usually doesn’t matter.

Perry had been for Newt Gingrich in the presidential race, to no appreciable effect. That didn’t really reach Texas voters, because both endorser and endorsee were out of the running well before the Republican primary here.

Four years ago, Perry endorsed not John McCain, but Rudy Giuliani.

He’s not always with the losers. Like almost every Texas Republican politician with a pulse, Perry endorsed George W. Bush for president in 2000 and 2004. Unlike his more recent recommendations to voters, that one faded into the woodwork. To get noticed in those years, a Texas Republican had to endorse against the strongest political franchise in the state — a career move in the wrong direction.

Because the governor is trying to show some strength, he would like to get some wins this time. If he waddles into the next legislative session as a lame duck who couldn’t attract voters to the benefit of beleaguered incumbents, why would the survivors fear him or follow him?

It’s a rare case where endorsements could backfire. For Combs, Abbott, Staples and others, this isn’t particularly risky. They’re meeting local people without putting themselves in harm’s way on the ballot, and the people who win with their help might be grateful — and helpful — later on, when this year’s endorsers are looking for allies.

They’ll be in the market for endorsements, and a new set of people will be in the market for favors. They’ll be hoping for I.O.U.’s from the next governor, lieutenant governor or comptroller.

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