Big endorsements can reduce voter choices
On March 30, the Reno Gazette-Journal ran a long story on the front page of its “In-depth” section. In letters more than an inch high, a quote appeared over a color photo of Republican district attorney candidate Chris Hicks: “I strive to be my own man.”
That striving, however, did not exclude Hicks’ use of endorsements from a lot of big names—the mayors of Reno and Sparks, sheriff of Washoe County, the incumbent and two former district attorneys, three state senators, developers and casino executives—to scare off competitors. It worked. Hicks is now running without opposition.
On March 1, Assemblymember Lucy Flores announced her candidacy for the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor. The news release on her announcement, issued by the Nevada Democratic Party’s publicist rather than her own campaign, arrived in the email in-boxes of reporters around the state at 3:40 p.m.
At 3:41 there also arrived an endorsement of Flores by U.S. Sen. Harry Reid.
At 3:42 came an endorsement from Nevada Democratic Party chair Roberta Lange.
At 3:45 it was U.S. Rep. Steven Horsford, followed at 3:46 by U.S. Rep. Dina Titus.
Bringing up the rear at 3:47 was Nevada Assembly Speaker Marilyn Kirkpatrick.
All this Democratic firepower sent out a pretty strong message that party leaders didn’t want anyone getting in Flores’ way, and the message was received. The only other Democrat to enter the race by the filing deadline was a defeated Nye County Commission candidate who was convicted of battery in Pahrump in 2010.
These kinds of arrangements and anointments are becoming more and more common in politics, and the public pays a price.
“Elections are all about choice, so in the absence of choice there is less interest, no real engagements, no real dialogue in the campaign,” said political analyst Fred Lokken.
In addition, he said, primaries are often regarded as a way of getting people interested in the year’s campaign, so quashing intra-party competition depresses turnout.
“Primaries get people thinking about the election,” he said. “You boost interest. So you diminish interest in the primary, and there’s no reason to show up, because contests are missing from the ballot.”
Asked if these machinations are anti-democratic, Flores said, “Well, all I can say is that I worked very, very hard for those endorsements. And anyone else in Nevada was certainly welcome to work as hard as I did for those endorsements. That was not something that happened overnight. I had been considering this office since early last year, and I started the vetting process for myself to assure this was something that I could win. It took quite a lot of conversation with Senator Reid, with the speaker, to insure that my Democratic colleagues also—I went to every single one of my Democratic colleagues in the Assembly and asked for their support. None of this was presumed on my part. So I worked very, very hard for those endorsements and, again, I didn’t preclude anyone else from working just as hard as I did for those endorsements.”Legitimacy
These arrangements are a double-edged sword. There is a danger that Flores ends up looking like a creation of the Mount Rushmore lineup of leaders behind her, lacking independence and identity—which undercuts the life narrative she has been using of fighting up from a teen gang to law school and the legislature. At the same time, those leaders bring her legitimacy and fund-raising ability.
“The notion of being associated with the establishment doesn’t play with voters like it used to,” Lokken said. “On the other hand, you get immediate credibility. It builds name recognition. Lucy Flores may be unknown, but her backers aren’t—’I don’t know you, Lucy, but I like my legislator who is supporting you.’” (See page 35 for an interview with Flores.)
Arrangements that avoid rough primaries can also serve a purpose for the candidates and the political parties.
“When [Dean] Heller first ran for the house he had a five-way race in the primary, and it was an absolute bloodbath,” Lokken said. “He got past the gate but was drained of all his resources before the general election.”
In Heller’s case, it was not a big problem because the district was safe Republican, but not all candidates have that kind of good fortune. In competitive districts, that kind of primary race can hurt.
“You want to control the event so you don’t burn through these resources,” Lokken said. “You lock down endorsements early on, get them committed and freeze our competition.”
In this particular year, there is another consideration in Flores’ case. The Democratic Party could not scrape up a major candidate for governor.
“Given that they had to give up the governorship, it’s important that the Democrats position someone like Flores,” Lokken said.
These kinds of arrangements don’t always work. Gov. Brian Sandoval handpicked Clark County Sen. Mark Hutchison to be the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. If Sandoval expected that to close out the contest, he was disappointed. Former senator Sue Lowden quickly jumped into the race and into a 14–point lead over Hutchison in an opinion survey, though that lead was probably built on name recognition, a fragile reed in politics.
When Tim Kuzanek announced his candidacy for Washoe County sheriff, he listed the incumbent sheriff, mayors of Reno and Sparks, the county district attorney, and two former sheriffs as supporters. That didn’t stop Nevada Highway Patrol officer Chuck Allen and three other candidates from getting into the race.
The backing from those prominent figures will, however, likely help Kuzanek withstand ups and downs on the campaign trail pretty well. What someone once called “the magic stamp of legitimacy” is helpful when things start going wrong in politics.