By John Celock
LAWRENCE, KS – Last year, Jersey City Mayor Steve Fulop (D) wrote a commentary questioning whether endorsements matter in elections.
In the last day, I have found myself thinking about Fulop’s commentary, which was written during the height of the 2013 New Jersey governor’s race, in the context of this year’s gubernatorial race in Kansas. While there are many differences between the two races: New Jersey had a popular Republican incumbent consistently leading a struggling Democratic opponent, this year Kansas has a struggling Republican incumbent against a competitive Democrat, there are similarities. Namely is Kansas Democratic nominee Paul Davis’ campaign taking a page from New Jersey Gov. Christie’s (R) playbook and as Fulop asked, will it even matter.
On Tuesday, Davis announced that he was being backed by over 100 moderate Republicans, almost all former elected officials, in his race against Gov. Sam Brownback (R), a conservative. This is similar to Christie’s announcements over the course of 2013 that he had been endorsed by over 60 current Democratic elected officials, including two of the most powerful Democrats in the state. The aftermath of both was largely similar, with allies of Christie and Davis saying that this shows bipartisanship or dissatisfaction with one party.
On the other side, the attacks began. Last year, New Jersey Democrat Barbara Buono and her allies dismissed the Democrats for Christie as engaging in “transactional” politics, saying that they had received state funding for their constituents and that is why they were backing Christie. In Kansas, Republicans were quick to point out that the officials were out of office and some had been defeated in their last elections. Some of the Kansas Republicans even took to Twitter jokes with Rep. J.R. Claeys (R-Salina), suggesting that the Democrats “raided the nursing home” for some of the Republicans and former House Speaker Doug Mays (R), saying that he thought a third of Davis’ list had already died. Democrats were quick to fight Claeys and Mays. Mays has since taken his tweet down.
J.R. Claeys inspired Twitter wars aside; the real question comes back to Fulop’s original comments from last year and the political playbooks being used by Davis and Christie. Can any of these endorsements help Davis this year and did they really help Christie last year in his landslide win. In a story I wrote for The Huffington Post last year, Fulop noted that “people overestimate the importance” of endorsements, but noted he would likely endorse candidates in the future.
An argument can easily be made for the importance of Christie’s endorsements. They were from sitting elected officials, including many mayors. Among them were Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzio and state Sen. Brian Stack, who is also the mayor of Union City, both of whom control large vote gathering armies and are among the most powerful Democrats statewide. It can easily be said that DiVincenzio and Stack, and the others were in a position to put forward their political operations to get votes for Christie or at least sit on the sidelines and not lift a finger for Buono. Looking at Buono’s margins in heavily Democratic Essex and Hudson Counties, it is easy to say that it worked out that way. It can also be argued that with Christie’s support from such powerful Democrats, other Democrats were less likely to help Buono to avoid retribution from others.
In Kansas, the argument can be made – and Democrats are making it – that the 100 person strong list is really a branding issue. Moderate and conservative Republicans have been engaged in a civil war for several years in Kansas and moderates – largely annihilated in the 2012 GOP primary – are now organizing in an effort to fight back. They are giving Davis, who hails from heavily liberal Lawrence, a seal of approval as he seeks to paint himself as a moderate alternative to the conservative Brownback.
At the same time, questions can linger that goes back to Fulop’s original argument. Can this list of moderate Republicans, some of whom had a heyday when New Coke not Coke Zero was on store shelves, really influence this year’s election in Kansas? Will voters remember them? Also, with many of them victims of the conservative tsunami in recent years, will voters just dismiss these endorsements as sour grapes? Only time will tell.
Another aspect that does strike me in the timing. Christie chose to unveil his endorsements over the course of the entire campaign, ensuring a never-ending series of articles that overwhelmed Buono’s message. But some could say he tired out New Jersey voters with the predictable news stories over the year. Davis chose to largely unveil his in one drop, which generated headlines for its size but also occurred on a July day when many are thinking about vacations, trips to the lake and a series of festivals from the KC Metro to Ellinwood. Some of Davis’ moderate GOP followers had started backing him last year or heavily hinted at it.
Only time will tell if Chris Christie and Paul Davis are in reality political soul brothers and if Steve Fulop’s words from last year will play out that way in Kansas this year. In fact, Steve Fulop is showing how well endorsements can work with many of his own candidates winning in New Jersey this year. Right now the only thing that may be certain is that with Kansas not having the same bare-knuckled politics of New Jersey, Claeys may not have to lie awake at night wondering about the future of the bridges of Salina.