An endorsement can make – and maybe break – a politician

Four years ago, U.S. Rep. Joe Heck got some star power and political help from Mitt Romney to open his Southern Nevada campaign headquarters as the GOP congressional candidate sought a comeback.

Heck, who lost a state Senate seat in a 2008 Democratic surge, ended up winning the 3rd Congressional District in 2010 by a slim 1,922 votes in a closely fought battle with the incumbent, U.S. Rep. Dina Titus, D-Nev.

In backing Heck, Romney was returning a favor. Heck was one of the first Nevada lawmakers to endorse him, helping him overwhelmingly win the GOP caucuses here in both 2008 and 2012.

This March, Romney traveled to Nevada again to help Heck raise money as he seeks a third House term. In recent days, Romney also endorsed GOP state Sen. Mark Hutchison for lieutenant governor and GOP Assemblyman Cresent Hardy for Congress. Both men face competitive June 10 primaries, and both have a history of working on Romney campaigns.

Hardy hosted Ann Romney in his hometown of Mesquite in 2011 and acted as a campaign surrogate. Hutchison helped raise money for Romney both times he ran for president, serving as a Nevada finance co-chair in 2012.

Romney’s not the only one lending his name to Nevada candidates. Last week alone, former Vice President Dick Cheney endorsed Adam Laxalt, a Republican running for attorney general against Democratic Secretary of State Ross Miller.

And Eva Longoria endorsed Assemblywoman Lucy Flores, D-Las Vegas, for lieutenant governor on the same day the “Desperate Housewives” star and political activist launched a Latino Victory PAC to support Hispanic candidates. Longoria, a Democrat, said it’s a nonpartisan group, although it so far has backed only Democrats.

“I welcome the support for my campaign,” Flores told her supporters in an email. “I am working hard to engage and inspire Latino voters in Nevada to make sure their voices are being heard.”

WHAT’S IT WORTH?

Big name endorsements can boost turnout by generating headlines and firing up base voters, particularly for the June 10 primary, according to political analysts. And candidates will need an extra lift this year with no Senate or presidential race to bring high turnout.

At the top of the ticket, GOP Gov. Brian Sandoval faces little Democratic or Republican opposition and is expected to coast to a second term, giving many voters little reason to show up for the primary or the Nov. 4 general election.

Thus, most endorsements are designed “to feed the enthusiasm gap,” said one GOP insider.

In Romney’s case, the endorsements could open a financial floodgate and remind fellow Mormons to vote. Cheney, too, could excite the conservative base and donors untroubled by his role in pushing the Iraq war while Longoria brings glamour and celebrity, drawing voters who might otherwise stay home. At the same time, Longoria said her PAC will invest in its candidates, giving Flores a financial bump.

“At the very least these kind of endorsements give a candidate credibility,” said Jennifer Duffy of The Cook Political Report. “It’s the political equivalent of the Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval.”

And a high-profile endorsement can be followed with material support, she said.

“An endorsement by someone like Romney probably comes with some other benefits like access to his donor list, a campaign appearance, headlining a fundraiser or appearing in an ad,” Duffy said. “So his endorsement should generate both buzz and campaign cash.

“Longoria is working to jump-start her PAC and an effort to get more Hispanic candidates to run,” Duffy added, saying Nevada’s highly competitive lieutenant governor’s race “is a good. high-profile target as she (Longoria) begins her effort. In other words, it’s mutually beneficial.”

The lieutenant governor’s race is getting a lot of attention because the winner could move into the governor’s office if Sandoval leaves midterm to run for the U.S. Senate in 2016 against Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., or to accept another judgeship or Cabinet post if a Republican wins the presidency.

Flores faces weak Democratic competition, but the GOP primary is highly competitive, pitting Hutchison against Sue Lowden, a former state senator, Nevada GOP chairwoman and failed U.S. Senate candidate in 2010.

IT’S PERSONAL

David Damore, a political science professor at UNLV, said endorsements matter most when they come early on for lesser-known candidates and “if they open up fundraising networks.” He said endorsements from groups such as the National Rifle Association, for example, also help voters define a candidate.

“There is some research showing when voters do not know much about a candidate group endorsements — NRA, first responders, teachers — can be useful as people project their attitudes about the group on to the candidate,” Damore said. “At the same time, voters do not think about what endorsement a candidate did not get.”

Endorsements often grow out of personal relationships with candidates and their advisers.

Heck and Romney have known one another for years, for example, and share some political consultants.

Cheney, a former House member from Wyoming, served with Laxalt’s grandfather, former U.S. Senator and Nevada Gov. Paul Laxalt, in Congress in the 1980s. Cheney and Adam Laxalt spoke by phone to get to know one another better before the endorsement, said a campaign insider.

“Adam has been endowed with his grandfather’s ideals,” Cheney wrote in a letter to Nevada voters. “Adam has faithfully served as a U.S. Navy and federal prosecutor, as a law professor at the U.S. Naval Academy, and as a lawyer in private practice who donates much of his time and talent to charitable endeavors. Finally, Adam is committed to protecting Nevadans from federal overreach. Adam will use the Attorney General’s Office to fight for the rule of law and limited government.”

But endorsements can backfire or add negative baggage. Neither Laxalt nor his opponent, Democrat Secretary of State Ross Miller, face a primary on their way to the Nov. 4 general election.

The Nevada Democratic Party quickly attacked Laxalt for accepting Cheney’s endorsement and added on a reference to the GOP candidate criticizing the Bureau of Land Management tactics during its aborted roundup of Bunkerville rancher Cliven Bundy’s cattle. Laxalt didn’t back Bundy but, in statements, focused on the right of his supporters to protest the roundup abandoned on April 12 to avoid violence.

“Nevada’s newest transplant and Bundy Republican Adam Laxalt can be endorsed by all the out-of-state Republican politicians he wants, but it won’t bail Laxalt out of his embracing a racist rancher who hasn’t paid his bills in twenty years,” Nevada Democratic Party spokesman Zach Hudson said. “Laxalt’s reckless and irresponsible behavior during the Bundy situation clearly demonstrates he is unfit to be Attorney General.”

“Nevadans will have a clear choice in this election between Ross Miller — who will enforce the rule of law and protect Nevada families — and Adam Laxalt, who defended armed out-of-state militias who have illegally set up ‘checkpoints’ in Nevada,” Hudson added, although there’s no proof any checkpoints were ever set up.

Republicans were silent on Longoria’s endorsement of Flores, who has campaigned under the radar for months.

Flores’ and Longoria’s paths have crossed before, adding a personal touch to the endorsement. Both campaigned as surrogates in 2012 for President Barack Obama, who won 70 percent of the Hispanic vote.

Celebrities such as Longoria can draw campaign crowds and raise the profiles of both candidate and star, generating more excitement and attention than a politician alone. That’s why voters might see singer Katy Perry perform a concert in Las Vegas as an opening act for Obama as she did before the 2012 election.

A GOP operative said timing is the key in maximizing the benefit of an endorsement, while big-name backers like candidates who already appear to have a winning team.

For example, when Romney endorsed Hardy in the 4th Congressional District over his GOP opponent, Niger Innis, a conservative civil rights advocate, Romney noted Hardy is also backed by Sandoval, U.S. Sen. Dean Heller, R-Nev., U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and current Lt. Gov. Brian Krolicki.

Endorsement by single-issue groups such as the NRA for gun owners or Emily’s List, which backs Democratic women who support abortion rights, can also be a boost. Emily’s List has endorsed Erin Bilbray, Heck’s Democratic opponent.

In the world of endorsements, however, the unexpected can carry more weight. Take Reid’s 2010 campaign, which featured support from a group known as Republicans for Reid that was unhappy with the GOP nominee, tea party darling Sharron Angle.

WHO TO CHOOSE

So what goes into making an endorsement decision?

A GOP operative close to Romney said the former Massachusetts governor consults a small group of advisers about candidates. Romney has so far endorsed at least 16 candidates nationwide this cycle, according to the Washington Post. They include Thom Tillis, a North Carolina U.S. Senate candidate who won a crowded GOP primary Tuesday, gaining 45 percent of the vote to avoid a run-off.

Although Romney lost to Obama and has laid low for months, he’s now emerging as a GOP influence partly because former presidents George W. Bush and George H. W. Bush maintain low profiles. That could change if former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush jumps into the 2016 president race. But for now Romney, 67, is the GOP’s gray beard.

“Mitt has continued to work with some of his most trusted advisers to help him make a difference where he can,” said the operative. “There hasn’t been that face of the party since the Bushes really stay out of the public eye. And I think that Mitt believes there needs to be that voice of the center-right if we are going to get anything changed in the country.”

Contact Laura Myers at lmyers@reviewjournal.com or 702-387-2919. Find her on Twitter @lmyerslvrj.

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