Senators Slow to Endorse Colleagues in Presidential Race
Four Senate Democrats hoping to secure their party's presidential nomination jetted back into the nation's capital today to cast votes on the farm bill and a tax proposal on the energy bill.
The quartet -- Joseph Biden (Del.), Hillary Clinton (N.Y.), Christopher Dodd (Conn.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) -- engaged their colleagues in friendly chit-chat, like a group of college students returning from summer break. Clinton, talking with a gaggle of veterans, and Obama, off in the far wing of the chamber talking to junior members, were both admonished for their loud talk and laughter. This sent Clinton and her group into the cloakroom, while Obama and Sens. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) turned their banter into inaudible whispers and smiles.
But for all that frivolity, one thing remains odd about the senators-turned-candidates and their relationships inside the chamber: Very few of their colleagues have bothered to endorse their candidacies.
On both the Democratic and Republican side of the aisle, barely a third of the Senate has endorsed a candidate. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- the intensifying battle for the nomination, just 22 of the 48 Senate Republicans have endorsed a candidate for president (exempting Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) since he obviously endorses his own bid).
More stunning, just 12 of the 47 senators in the Democratic caucus have endorsed a candidate for the Democratic nomination (exempting the four vying for that nomination). These numbers come courtesy of Roll Call's endorsement watch (subscription required).
This is in sharp contrast to the House, where basically half of the 435 members have endorsed candidates. While just 25 percent of Senate Democrats have sided with a candidate, 122 House Democrats -- more than 50 percent -- have gotten out front of the campaign and endorsed.
A huge majority of senators appear to have made the calculation that is simply better to wait for a clear winner to emerge, avoiding any risk of siding with a loser and engendering ill will with the eventual nominee.
Several senators, speaking both on and off the record, said the risk-reward for them is too high. Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.), the most prominent Cuban-American in delegate-rich Florida, said he would withhold an endorsement until at least after the Jan. 8 New Hampshire primary, at which point he hopes a clear front-runner will be at hand. This way, he said he would avoid making a decision "in which you're going to make two-thirds of your friends angry and just one-third happy."
"It's in every senator's interest, except for those from the home states, to wait it out. People have been around a long time," said a Senate Democrat backing Clinton, requesting anonymity to explain the candid reasons for his colleagues' reluctance to endorse.
These are not just backbench, little-known senators who are afraid to throw their political weight around. On both sides of the aisle prime-time senators are sitting this out.
These include Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), whose support of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) in Iowa in 2004 helped push him across the caucus finish line first; Kerry himself, who's sitting on an e-mail list of 3 million supporters from his '04 bid that any candidate would kill for; Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.); Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), who has provided key support for previous nominees such as President Bush in 2000 and Bob Dole in 1996; and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), the largest vote getter in Golden State history whose support in the Feb. 5 California primary could prove pivotal if the contest goes on that long.
A Democratic lobbyist on Clinton's side recently spoke to Kennedy, who explained that his ties to the Clinton family are deep but his friendship with Dodd goes back three decades. Another senator suggested Kennedy put his entire political operation behind Kerry's 2004 effort and is just too burned from a losing campaign to make any similar effort. Boxer, whose daughter was once married to Sen. Clinton's brother, remains on the sideline while her California colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D), has endorsed the former first lady.
The two leading recipients of senatorial endorsements are Clinton, with nine, and McCain, with 10. In addition to her home-state colleague Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), Clinton has grabbed the endorsements of three female senators and two senators from neighboring New Jersey. Beyond those natural allies, Clinton also won the backing of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), whose political career was launched by President Clinton in the mid-1990s with an appointment as U.S. attorney. Sens. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) are the only senators without natural alliances to Clinton or her family that have backed her campaign.
McCain, meanwhile, has the widest allegiance of support spanning all regions and ideologies in the Senate. From moderates such as Maine's senators, Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe, to a conservative darling, Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), McCain has widespread backing.
Meanwhile, Biden, Gov. Bill Richardson (D-N.M.) and Obama have won the support of only their home-state senator. Dodd -- who's been in the chamber since 1981 -- does not have even a single endorsement from his colleagues.
And judging from their responses this week, one shouldn't expect these senators to dive into the endorsement field while the contests remain this hot.
"They're all close colleagues. They're all imminently qualified," said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), the elder statesman of Hawkeye State politics. Where will Harkin's endorsement be in the next few weeks, with the caucuses just 21 days away?
"Right where it is right now," Harkin said. "As neutral as I can be."
December 13, 2007; 4:40 PM ET
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