Bitter Primaries Lead to Cross-Party Endorsements

by Nathan L. Gonzales October 24, 2008 · 11:00 AM EDT

Within the broad scope of presidential elections, party defections aren’t all that uncommon. But this cycle, across-the-aisle endorsements have become quite the fad in Congressional contests, with three Republicans supporting Democratic candidates in a trio of high-profile races.

In each case, the endorsements receive plenty of media attention, locally or nationally depending on the race, but their ultimate impact on races remains to be seen.

Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s endorsement of Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) is the most recent and public example. Sen. Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) endorsed Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) for president and spoke at the Republican National Convention. Former Iowa Rep. Jim Leach (R) endorsed Obama and spoke at the Democrats’ convention in Denver.

At the Congressional level, bitter primaries seem to be precursor to an elected official from one party crossing over to support a candidate in the other.

On Monday, Republican state Sen. Harri Anne Smith crossed party lines to endorse Montgomery Mayor Bobby Bright (D) in Alabama’s extremely competitive open-seat 2nd district race. Smith received 21 percent in the initial six-way primary, but lost the July 15 runoff to state Rep. Jay Love, 53 percent to 47 percent. It’s clear that the tone of the runoff played into her decision.

“I also know firsthand what it’s like to be a victim of his opponent’s reckless and untrue attacks, so I wanted to stand up for [Bright] today,” Smith said, as part of the Democrat’s truck tour. Of course, Bright reciprocated by saying nice things about the woman he almost faced in the general election.

At the end of September, former Rep. Joe Schwarz (R-Mich.) endorsed Democrat Mark Schauer in Michigan’s 7th district. Schauer is challenging Rep. Tim Walberg (R), who defeated Schwarz in the 2006 GOP primary. Schwarz was sort of an accidental Congressman, after winning the 2004 GOP primary with 28 percent when multiple candidates (including Walberg) divided the conservative vote.

Needless to say, Schwarz was bitter after he lost renomination, and specifically mad at the conservative anti-tax group the Club for Growth for their involvement in the race. Schwarz considered a comeback this cycle and was even courted by the Democrats to switch parties, but he ultimately decided against it. But when the club started attacking Schauer, Schwarz got off the sidelines.

“That to me is the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Schwarz told the Associated Press. “I object to political dabblers who stand for nothing other than to create havoc and dabble in a Congressional race where they truly have no interest.”

In Maryland’s 1st district, another moderate Republican lost the primary and is now supporting the Democratic nominee. Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.) garnered just 33 percent in his three-way GOP primary in February, losing to state Sen. Andy Harris.

The primary was personal, and in April Gilchrest’s longtime campaign aide joined the staff of the Democratic nominee, Queen Anne County State’s Attorney Frank Kratovil. So it was no surprise when Gilchrest himself announced his support for Kratovil.

Last year, before the Congressman lost the GOP nomination, Kratovil criticized Gilchrest for a failure of leadership and his lack of effectiveness and results. Now, the Congressman is appearing in a campaign ad for the Democrat.

“I see a man who can carry on with any tiny legacy I might have,” Gilchrest said at a press conference. “I see a man with an independent voice, someone of competence, integrity and courage. Most important, I see a man I trust. That is more important to me than party labels.”

It’s amazing how party labels seem to fade away when voters reject you.