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Endorsements’ clout waning, but there is an exception: parties’ blessing is still coveted by political candidates

Endorsements from elected officials are one of the most important aspects of
insider politics. In the end though, when the candidates face the voters,
individual endorsements matter less and less.

The official endorsement of the respective political parties, however, has
increasingly more impact.

In the recent special election for Congress in Orange County, state Sen.
John Campbell won in a so-called open primary where voters, regardless of
their own party registration, got to vote for any candidate of their choice,
regardless of the candidate’s party. Campbell had the official backing of
the Republican Party even though there were several other GOP candidates in
the race.

There is controversy surrounding Campbell’s endorsement and others like it,
such as the state GOP’s official backing of Arnold Schwarzenegger in the
2003 gubernatorial recall election, and in 2006, when Schwarzenegger plans
to run for reelection.

Some argue that it isn’t right–that only the voters should have the power to
nominate.

But the increasingly more popular position is that it is the responsibility
of the political parties to let their voters know who is the best choice.
That is especially true when the regular nomination process is corrupted by
allowing non-party members to vote, thus possibly selecting or influencing
who will become a party’s nominee.

In 2000, Democrat voters followed the calls from two candidates and their
backers in that year’s so-called open primary and effectively elected
Assemblyman Tom Harman (R-67) and Lynn Daucher (R-72), who did not win the
plurality of the GOP vote, but got the ‘GOP nomination’ when the votes of
Democrats were factored in. The Republican Party is determined never to let
this happen again.

There has been a push at the local level with the counties’ Republican
Central Committees for endorsing–not just candidates for partisan office,
but candidates at the city council, school board and water board level.
History suggests that these lower-level office holders will eventually
advance to partisan office. They are also the elected officials who are
closest to the voters and represent the values of the party with their votes
each week.

The California Republican Party has gone so far as to require each County
Central Committee to adopt a mechanism for endorsing in non-partisan races
before being eligible to receive funds for get-out-the-vote and registration
bounty programs.

Ron Nehring, vice-chairman of the state GOP and chairman of the Republican
Party of San Diego County, is an innovator. His county normalized the
endorsement process and made its endorsement as sought after as the local
Congressional delegation, and more important than the support from most
local PACs.

“We have to do away with the quaint myth of the ‘non-partisan’ election.
Every election is an opportunity to put Republican ideas into action,” says
Nehring. “Our members, Republican voters, rely on us for information and
guidance on candidates for local offices that have as much of an impact on
our quality of life as any state or federal ‘partisan’ office.” Nehring
goes on to say that, “We also have a responsibly to evaluate the candidates
and let our members know which Republicans once elected will stand up for
the principles of our party.”

Democrat strategist Larry Levine agrees, “The party endorsing in local races
is a fine idea because while the office may be non-partisan the voters are
looking for every hint and clue about the candidates, and party support says
a lot.”

At the statewide level a party endorsement means shared resources–savings
amounting to hundreds of thousands of dollars in duplicative expenses the
campaign can use for more voter outreach rather than administration.

At the local level a party’s endorsement of a candidate manifests itself
with access to voter data files, an integrated precinct operation, absentee
‘chase’ assistance and staff support. It also opens the door to party
expenditures known as “member communications” which allows the party to
expend money, in coordination with the campaign, to communicate with party
voters.

In the ever-restrictive campaign finance environment, member communications
are becoming a very important tool. While a candidate for city council
might have campaign contribution limits of $500 per person, the county party
can collect and spend in any amount on behalf of endorsed candidates, as
long as its target audience is party members.

And that’s the bottom-line message to the politically squeamish and
moderates who fear party politics: The game is changing.


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