If Mitt Romney and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce were baseball players, they’d be batting 1,000 in the 2014 GOP primary game. Sarah Palin? Not so much. She’s got a 33% track record so far.
With about a quarter of the primary contests now over, the results of the cycle’s high-profile endorsements tell the story of the Republican Party itself, with an early surge of business-friendly Establishment-backed successes, a handful of Tea Party wipeouts, and plenty of scores still left to settle.
The hottest hand in Republican primary politics so far belongs to none other than Romney, the 2012 Republican presidential loser who seemed to struggle every day of the presidential contest to find a path to victory but has picked nothing but winners in 2014. Of the candidates he’s endorsed so far in contested GOP primaries, all six have won their races. Included on that list are North Carolina Senate hopeful Thom Tillis, Oregon Senate candidate Dr. Monica Wehby, Idaho Rep. Mike Simpson, and Pennsylvania Rep. Bud Shuster, veteran and novice candidates alike who all faced bruising, expensive primary battles.
Did Romney’s picks win because he endorsed them, or did he endorse them because they were winners? Neither scenario could tell the full story, but the former Massachusetts governor clearly is defining who makes the grade as a “Romney Republican” by choosing candidates who are pragmatic, business-friendly, and, so far at least, running effective campaigns that can win.
Many of Romney’s endorsees also got the nod from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which, like Romney, is undefeated so far in the midterm election cycle. Of the eight candidates the chamber has supported this year, all have won their primaries or special elections.
But unlike an endorsement from Romney or any other politician, which might bring a few days of press and a bump in the polls of a point or so, the support of the chamber means money and lots of it, in the form of independent expenditures to support a candidate. In addition to Tillis and Simpson, the chamber went two for two in special elections in Alabama and Florida, and this month spent more than $1 million backing Sen. Mitch McConnell against Tea Party favorite Matt Bevin, along with more than $900,000 for Rep. Jack Kingston, who made it out of a five-way Republican brawl into the runoff in the Georgia GOP senate primary.
Wherever there are winners in politics, there are inevitably losers, and the biggest loser so far in the 2014 cycle has been Palin, who has seen just two of the six candidates she’s endorsed win their primaries.
While Palin still draws crowds and media attention whenever she stumps for a candidate, gone are the days of 2010, when a Palin endorsement could rocket a lagging campaign from the middle of the pack to the front.
Although Palin backed primary winners Ben Sasse for Nebraska senator and Greg Abbott for Texas governor this year, her highest-profile picks have flopped. Palin went to Georgia to stump for Karen Handel, but Handel finished a distant third in the Senate primary. Other Palin also-rans were Katrina Pierson, who challenged Texas Rep. Pete Sessions; Taylor Griffin, the primary challenger for Rep. Walter Jones in North Carolina; and Lizbeth Benacquisto, who lost the April special election in Florida to replace Rep. Trey Radel. Although they all trumpeted their “Mama Grizzly” get at the time, a nod from Palin just didn’t matter enough to make a difference in the end.
In a year when insurgent candidates have fizzled, Palin hasn’t been the only former Republican rock star without a lot of juice. Rick Santorum’s picks have been a mixed bag, too. Santorum struck out with Jason Conger, who lost to Wehby in Oregon, Handel in Georgia, and Quin Hillyer, the social conservative who finished a distant fourth place in the Alabama special election to replace Rep. Jo Bonner. But Santorum fared better with Sasse in Nebraska and Alex Mooney, a Tea Party-backed candidate who won the West Virginia primary for Rep. Shelley Moore Capito’s seat.
The Chamber’s next big test comes Tuesday, when Sen. Thad Cochran faces off against Chris McDaniel in what has become the nastiest GOP primary this cycle. The chamber has spent $100,000 in the Mississippi race, where McDaniel has the backing of both Palin and Santorum.
Romney’s spotless record is up for a test on Tuesday, too, when some of his long-shot picks come up for a vote, including Neel Kashkari, the former TARP czar running for California governor, and Joni Ernst, the Iowa state senator whose ads for U.S. Senate have featured guns and squealing pigs. In the five-way primary, Ernst not only is backed by Romney but also by the Chamber of Commerce, and yes, Palin.
But primaries being primaries, not everyone is on the same page in Iowa. Texas Gov. Rick Perry endorsed Tea Party pick Matt Whitaker in the race, while Santorum is behind religious conservative Sam Clovis, a business and public policy professor and radio talk show host.
But Romney is doing more than just lending his name to the race. For the first time since 2012, he was back on the Iowa stump when he campaigned with Ernst on Friday, this time in his new role of party elder, having all of the fun of a campaign without the pressure of being on the ballot. “When you run for national office, people think, ‘Oh, it must be awful—all the rubber chicken, all the nights in hotels, the fundraisers, the speeches, the adoring press,” he told Ernst supporters. “But the truth is it’s a marvelous experience.”