As Georgia primaries near, courting season revs up for endorsements

Gov. Nathan Deal's less-than-enthusiastic endorsement of Jeb Bush underscored the frenetic competition raging to lock up the support of leading Georgia officials and operatives in the run-up to the state's March 1 primaries.

Scholars have long warred over whether endorsements matter, and the anti-establishment undercurrents in this year's race seem to make their effect as muted as ever. Still, candidates are pouring time and treasure toward winning over state leaders — and there's no shortage of drama in the final days before the vote.

There have been last-minute flips, strategic gamesmanship and strange partnerships forged within the past week. And the pressure to win over the few neutral politicians, or lure those betrothed to candidates that could drop out, will only intensify.

That’s because an endorsement is not only a measure of a candidate’s standing among party leaders, but it’s also a key to unlock new donors’ checkbooks and tap a network of surrogates and organizational support that can help drive voter turnout before the primary.

Bush, a former Florida Republican governor, and Democrat Hillary Clinton surged to an early advantage in the endorsement hunt in Georgia last year. Bush lined up the likes of Lt. Gov. Casey Cagle and Attorney General Sam Olens with visits to the statehouse, while Clinton secured most of the Democratic establishment in Georgia.

But outsider candidates have upended the race by tapping into a deep vein of voter disgust with the status quo. Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and billionaire Donald Trump split the first two contests in Iowa and New Hampshire by railing against the Washington elite, while Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders’ surprisingly stiff competition with Clinton is fueled by his calls for a political revolution.

Shifting support

That anti-establishment furor has also sent a jolt through the hunt for endorsements. Consider the case of Vincent Fort, the No. 2 Democrat in the Georgia Senate, who was among the first black elected officials in the state to embrace Clinton's campaign. He was among the gaggle of politicos at the front of the room at her October campaign appearance at Clark Atlanta University.

On Tuesday morning, hours before Sanders headlined a rally at Morehouse College, Fort announced a sudden change of heart. Soon, he was introducing the Vermont senator to a crowd of nearly 5,000 as the only candidate who could "truly" change the political system.

For Fort, who has long clashed with powerful Clinton surrogates such as Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed, the announcement was as much about his political future as Sanders' bid for office.

He instantly becomes one of Sanders’ top surrogates in the South, and the presidential candidate’s campaign against the establishment could offer guideposts for Fort if he enters an already-crowded race for Atlanta mayor.

“Any election that I ever run in the future is going to be about creating a peoples’ movement, a grass-roots movement,” Fort said. “And that’s the intersection between what Bernie is doing and what I’m doing.”

Clinton's campaign responded in a major way, rolling out a list of nearly three dozen black state legislators who endorsed her bid for the presidency. It was a show of force by a candidate who is relying on minority backing to halt Sanders' momentum.

“For me, supporting Hillary was not a hard decision. Her record and commitment is unmatched,” said state Rep. Calvin Smyre, a Columbus Democrat and the longest-serving member of the House. “Make no mistake, no candidate, Democratic or Republican, is better prepared or positioned to serve our communities around the nation.”

There’s an equally intense fight to lock up Republican politicos. The campaigns of Cruz, Ohio Gov. John Kasich and Florida U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio have proudly unleashed waves of endorsements as they try to make the case that they are surging.

Unusual pairings

It makes for some unlikely bedfellows. Former Savannah U.S. Rep. Jack Kingston, the runner-up in the 2014 Georgia GOP race for an open Senate seat, ran for office clinging to establishment credentials that included a long history as an appropriator.

That made it all the more unlikely when he announced Wednesday that he would support Cruz, who has put a critique of Washington spending at the center of his campaign.

Trump’s campaign, which perhaps most proudly wields the outsider label, has locked up only a handful of state legislators. But the Georgia campaign has made the most noise out of an endorsement from someone who does not hold office: Dunwoody jeweler Bruce LeVell.

The former chairman of the Gwinnett GOP was invited to a two-hour private meeting that Trump held with black ministers in November and was ferried on Trump's jet to a rally in Macon.

“There’s something about this guy. He’s a business guy who hires and creates things,” LeVell said. “And it was very attractive for me. I was trying to pull back, but something kept drawing me back in.”

If a candidate quits, reboot

Supporters of Bush, though, may prove the most popular. His backers are under mounting pressure to switch sides after Bush’s poor performance in Iowa and New Hampshire. And they could become free agents if another dismal finish in South Carolina on Saturday forces him to drop out.

"I made a commitment and I'm staying with it unless he gets out," Cagle said of Bush. "We'll go accordingly from there."

That also means Deal may have a decision to make. He endorsed Bush, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, ex-Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie last year. When the latter three dropped out, it left Bush with his de facto endorsement.

But the governor said in an interview that he first wants to have a "pointed" talk with the Floridian about the state's ongoing legal feud with its neighbor over water. And while his aides said he isn't likely to withdraw his support for Bush, he had some harsher words when he was asked how firm his commitment is.

“We shall see how the conversations go.”

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