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Analysis: Endorsements That Sometimes Include a Financial Angle

For voters who don't know all of the candidates, slate cards that list this or that group's endorsements in the primaries can be useful. And sometimes, that drives the campaigns batty.

Voters wait in line to cast their ballots at the Flawn Academic Center on the University of Texas at Austin campus on Nov. 6, 2012.

Republican candidates seeking office in Harris County must contend with a bit of old-school politics in the form of conservative groups endorsing slates of candidates and sending the lists to tens of thousands of primary voters.

The publishers of the slate cards would leap to tell you that the number of voters who get the cards is much bigger than that — 200,000 or even 300,000.

Some mailings, like those from one called the Link Letter and another from the Conservative Republicans of Texas, are plain slate cards — listings of the people who carry the endorsement of the organization, mailed with money paid to the publishers by or on behalf of the candidates. Others, like the Texas Conservative Review, a magazine that will be published before voting begins later this month, include advertising by candidates — some of whom carry the publication’s endorsement.

Most candidates are loath to talk about the slates, especially before they see the endorsements.

“I guess they’ve looked at my finance reports,” said Debra Medina, a candidate for state comptroller whose campaign coffers are dwarfed by her competitors. “There’s no point calling Debra and asking if she’s interested in this. I’ve never been contacted by them.”

She and others refer to the slates as “pay-to-play” operations — there is a general feeling among candidates that the endorsements are often contingent on whether the endorsers collect direct or indirect payments from the endorsees. The slate cards persist because the endorsements are useful to the thousands of Republican primary voters who receive them. If they were meaningless, nobody would play.

Gary Polland, who has been publishing the Texas Conservative Review for 13 years, says he allows candidates who are not endorsed by the group to pull their ads and get their money back before publication. “Anyone who wants to buy an ad can buy an ad,” he said. “It has nothing to do with whether you got an endorsement.”

Half of the candidates endorsed by his publication in the last elections did not run ad, he said — including many in the legion of judicial candidates whose names crowded the bottom of Harris County’s long ballots.

Most candidates, trying to stretch their ad dollars, want to be on the slates, which many voters carry into the booth as cheat sheets.

Sounds dandy, right? Ask a candidate or a consultant. Their eyes might narrow, particularly if their political rivals won one or more of the endorsements. The skepticism comes from the way the slates work: The publications get the money for printing and distribution from the candidates and other political folk. To some, that makes sense; a candidate can communicate a trusted endorsement to that relatively small group of people who vote in Republican primaries. Through that lens, it can be an efficient and effective promotion.

But why would someone without an endorsement want to pay for the distribution of a slate that promotes another candidate? Polland addresses that by allowing candidates who are not endorsed to pull their ads, but campaign consultants regularly complain about the slates and say they feel pressured to take part. How they measure that pressure depends on their view of the circulations of the slates. The last two statewide Republican primaries were small enough to be won with fewer than 750,000 voters. A slate card reaching a quarter of those voters could provide an important boost, or heavy damage.

Harris County candidates have been grousing about the slates for years. This year, the grousing has moved up to some of the statewide races, attracting attention from local political observers like David Jennings, who has written extensively about the slates on his Big Jolly Politics blog.

Those statewide races are unusually competitive. The top seven races on the Republican primary ballot feature nearly two dozen serious candidates — people whose names, organizations or bank accounts are big enough to give them more than a long shot’s chance at winning the March 4 primary or making it into a runoff.

It is a large and competitive herd. The electorate is small. There are a lot of names to remember. The Olympics overlap the first week of early voting, providing a nettlesome distraction and raising the price of television ads.

When all of the top races are dominated by incumbents, the slates have to rely on local candidates for financial support. This year, they have the upper hand.

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