ATLANTA — The Republican speaker of Georgia’s House of Representatives laughed when asked if he had endorsed any GOP candidates for president.
“Thank God, no,” House Speaker David Ralston said.
Several of Georgia’s leaders might wish they could say the same with close to a week until the state’s primary on Super Tuesday, March 6. In this up-and-down Republican campaign season, presidential candidates have repeatedly surged to the front of the pack only to collapse amid sexual scandals, campaign implosions or poor debate performances. It can leave their supporters in awkward situations.
Georgia Gov. Nathan Deal watched former Georgia U.S. Rep. Newt Gingrich’s campaign implode with several top-level staffers resigning last summer. Two other statewide officials saw their pick drop out of the race altogether. Several prominent Republicans, including both U.S. senators from Georgia, are playing it safe and not endorsing anyone.
“Even though we’re on the verge of Super Tuesday, I’m electing to stay out of it,” said Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle, who had endorsed Rick Perry before the Texas governor dropped out earlier this year. “I think the field is beginning to narrow. I kind of find myself in the camp of anybody-but-Obama.”
Endorsements from political superstars do not guarantee victory. For example, former vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin, a conservative icon, endorsed Karen Handel for Georgia governor in 2010. It got Handel headlines and attention, but she lost the Republican primary to Deal.
But an endorsement can connect a candidate with donors and volunteers ready to work.
Tapping those networks has been essential for Republican Rick Santorum, who recently surged in the GOP primary race but is short on cash and has few paid staffers. Public Service Commissioner Tim Echols, who has connections with the state’s Christian evangelical voters, has endorsed Santorum and helped turn out crowds for a campaign appearance at a Baptist church in Georgia.
He’s also recruiting volunteers to make phone calls and walk door-to-door pitching Santorum as a candidate. State Insurance Commissioner Ralph Hudgens has also endorsed Santorum.
Echols said he likes Santorum’s anti-abortion stance and worries Gingrich’s past infidelity could hurt the party in the general election.
“That’s going to be a tremendous liability when President Obama begins to spend a lot of his money attacking our candidate,” Echols said. “I feel like it would really come back to haunt us.”
Gingrich, the former House speaker, has a readymade network of supporters. He lives in Virginia, but he represented Georgia in Congress for 20 years, including two terms as House speaker. His supporters include Deal, a former Democratic Congressman who became a Republican during Gingrich’s tenure and is now governor. Gingrich also lists endorsements from five of the state’s eight GOP Congressmen: U.S. Reps. Austin Scott, Lynn Westmoreland, Tom Price, Jack Kingston and Phil Gingrey.
“He does have many friends who still remember him and his service of over 20 years to the people of the state as a member of Congress,” Deal said.
The governor has hosted several fundraisers for Gingrich and will join him on portions of a bus tour next week.
Deal has been a steadfast Gingrich supporter when others bolted. Former Gov. Sonny Perdue, one of Gingrich’s national co-chairmen, switched allegiance to Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty during a rough stretch when many of Gingrich’s staffers quit and the campaign went into debt. Pawlenty later quit the race.
Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens and Labor Commissioner Mark Butler have both sided with former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney.
Olens has co-hosted local fundraisers for Romney’s campaign and made a campaign stop with the former Massachusetts governor in the Atlanta suburb of Smyrna.
Romney came in third in Georgia’s 2008 presidential primary, behind former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee and Sen. John McCain. During that election, Olens said Romney’s campaign mainly focused on winning votes in Atlanta and the coast. This time, Olens said, Romney wants to run a full campaign across all of Georgia.