When New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez steps onto a Kansas stage
on Friday to endorse Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio,
she will be only the 10th governor to back one of the four
candidates remaining in a nominating contest that could define the
party for years to come.
That is a sharp contrast to previous elections, when governors lined
up solidly behind the party's eventual nominee, helping to winnow
the field of candidates early on.
Perplexed by the chaotic race, many governors are keeping a low
profile to avoid a possible backlash from voters who are
increasingly contemptuous of party leaders, Republican officials
"It's a lose-lose political situation," said Fergus Cullen, a former
New Hampshire Republican Party chairman.
In past elections, a governor's endorsement could produce a burst of
positive news coverage and the support of well-connected local
leaders for a presidential contender.
That would encourage other elected officials to endorse the
candidate as well, creating an impression that the candidate was a
favorite of those who knew best and encouraging others to drop out
of the race, said David Karol, a University of Maryland political
science professor who has found that endorsements were a strong
predictor of electoral success between 1980 and 2004.
"The absence of most of the governors this late in the process
really indicates the paralysis and division in Republican elite
circles," Karol said.
Many don't want to discuss Trump, who has made his party's
establishment uneasy with his abrasive tone and policy positions,
including plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, deport
11 million illegal immigrants and temporarily bar Muslims from
entering the country.
Those still on the fence do not seem eager to talk. The 18 undecided
Republican governors, contacted by Reuters, declined an interview to
discuss their views on the race.
George W. Bush, elected president in 2000, had the support of 26 of
the party's 30 Republican governors before primary voting even
started, according to figures compiled by James Madison University
political science professor Martin Cohen, who with Karol is a
co-author of "The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and
In 2012, 10 of 29 Republican governors had endorsed Mitt Romney by
the time he clinched the presidential nomination.
This year, governors are not sending a clear signal to voters. Five
have endorsed Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida who has won one
nominating contest so far. Two have endorsed John Kasich of Ohio,
the only governor left in the race, who has won no contests. Two
have endorsed front-runner Donald Trump. One has backed U.S. Senator
Ted Cruz of Texas. Three others endorsed candidates who have since
dropped out of the race.
The governors who have made endorsements so far have had little
impact. Rubio lost in Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas,
despite the backing of governors in those states. Kasich got only 4
percent of the vote in Alabama on Tuesday after that state's
Governor Robert Bentley endorsed him.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad called on voters in his state to reject
Cruz before the state's February caucuses. Cruz won.
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So far, only Texas Governor Greg Abbott has picked a winner. He
endorsed Cruz, who won Texas on Tuesday.
Trump has put many governors in a difficult position. The
billionaire real estate developer is expected to easily win
Mississippi's Republican primary next Tuesday, for example, but his
support for Planned Parenthood and government-backed health
insurance, among other policies, put him at odds with the
conservative positions backed by Governor Phil Bryant.
Bryant will support Trump should he end up being the party's
nominee, but he has not decided whether to endorse a candidate
before the primary, an aide told Reuters.
WINNING AT THE STATE LEVEL
In theory, governors should be in a position to shape the outcome of
this year's nominating contests. Republicans at the state level have
delivered tax cuts, abortion restrictions and other conservative
victories from Maine to Arizona, while their counterparts in charge
of Congress have been locked in a stalemate with Democratic
President Barack Obama.
But the plethora of establishment-minded candidates this year has
made it more difficult for governors and other senior officials to
decide who to back, let alone try to shape the outcome with an
Republican governors in Maryland, Florida, Wyoming, Indiana,
Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Nebraska and
Michigan declined to say whether they would back Trump if he were
the party's nominee.
Governors in Utah, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Georgia have yet to
endorse a candidate but would back Trump if he won the nomination,
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters this week he
would not vote for Trump in the November election.
Those who take a stand do not necessarily have it any easier.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who ended his own presidential
bid last month, has faced relentless criticism since he announced
his support for Trump last week. Six newspapers in his home state
have called on him to resign.
So it may be no surprise that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who is
fighting for his own political life amid a scandal over tainted
drinking water, will not risk alienating more of his constituents by
backing a candidate before Tuesday's primary.
"Right now Governor Snyder is focused on solving the crisis in
Flint, not on politics," spokesman Ari Adler said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey, Sharon Bernstein, Ian Simpson,
Alex Dobuzinskis and Scott Malone; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh, Ross
Colvin and Howard Goller)
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