My theory on political endorsements is that they generally add up to what John Nance Garner said the vice presidency was worth, which is to say, “a bucket of warm spit.” Well, if you want me to be perfectly accurate about it, FDR’s first VEEP said that the job “wasn’t worth a bucket of warm spit.” And, okay, if you want me to be crudely accurate about it, he used a less polite word than “spit.”
My reasoning is that in high-profile races, voters will know plenty about the candidates themselves (and some of that information might even be accurate) so that they can form their own opinions without needing reference to other pols that they already know. Moreover, in today’s highly polarized world, all most voters really need to know is the candidate’s party. Ticket splitting is pretty much a thing of the past.
But there are exceptions to the rule. In low information races, like local offices where there are no partisan affiliations, a key endorsement can matter a lot. So, when the popular Dane County Executive Kathleen Falk endorsed me in my first run for mayor in 2002 that put me on a lot of radar screens. But when she endorsed me again eight years later, it couldn’t save me. Voters knew me and any endorsement couldn’t have much impact on their view of me. As it turned out, a slim majority felt it was time for me to find another line of work.
The same dynamic of early endorsements for little known candidates applies in the early stages of partisan primaries, even for high-profile offices, like U.S. Senate. The four announced candidates — Outagamie County Executive Tom Nelson. Milwaukee Bucks executive Alex Lasry, State Treasurer Sarah Godlewski and Wausau radiologist Gillian Battino — are working the phones trying to line up support.
At this point, it’s just an insider game, but it’s one that can have an impact on the race as it starts to heat up. So, for those of us who try to follow this stuff closely, it’s worth paying some attention to who lands in which camp.
Along those lines, two recent endorsements from Madison pols have caught my attention. The first is Rep. Sheila Stubbs’ endorsement of Lasry. This is worth noting not just for who she’s supporting, but for who she’s not backing. Stubbs is the first Black woman to fill a Dane County seat in the Legislature and last year she was elected chair of the Black Caucus in the Assembly. You might expect her to go with Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes, or at least to keep her powder dry until he makes up his mind about running.
But by securing the Stubbs endorsement early in the race, Lasry has accomplished two things. First, he further erodes Barnes’ expected base of supporters. Lasry is already doing well by securing endorsements from high profile Black leaders in Milwaukee, going right into Barnes’ backyard.
But when you add the second key element — the fact that Stubbs is a Dane County rep — that multiplies the significance. Having a Milwaukee base is not necessarily a good thing. There is — probably for all the wrong reasons — a reluctance on the part of outstate voters to vote for a Milwaukee candidate. And Milwaukee is now second fiddle to Dane County when it comes to Democratic turnout. In April, the Democrat-backed candidate for State Superintendent, Jill Underly, got 80% of the vote and 95,000 votes out of Dane County, while she got only 70% and 71,000 votes from Milwaukee County. If there are two Milwaukee candidates, they’ll probably both lose.
The bottom line is that Lasry has to break into Dane County and he has to keep Barnes out of the race. The Stubbs endorsement helps a great deal toward both goals.
The second important endorsement out of Dane County is that of Sen. Kelda Roys, who has come out for Nelson. Nelson also needs to make inroads into Madison and he needs the support of prominent women, given that Godlewski will likely see liberal women as her base. Godlewski also can’t be too pleased to see Battino get in the race, though it’s too early to tell how much support she’ll pick up.
Those, of course, are only two endorsements out of many. I highlight them because both Stubbs and Roys are my legislators, they’re both influential in crucial Dane County and we might have expected their endorsements to go in different directions.
We’re in the early innings of a long ball game. By the primary, still 15 months away, the early endorsements themselves won’t mean much. But, right now, in terms of what Lasry and Nelson need to do, they matter a lot.