President Bill Clinton’s recent endorsements in a handful of House primaries have conjured up memories of the 2008 Democratic presidential primary, as he has sought to reward his wife’s supporters and candidates with loyalties to the couple.
“There’s nobody in this business that keeps score like the Clintons,” a Washington, D.C.-based Democratic fundraiser noted.
Two of the four highest-profile races Clinton has chosen to get involved in are Member-vs.-Member fights. He wrote a letter of support for Rep. Brad Sherman in his race against fellow California Democratic Rep. Howard Berman. And just last week he backed Pennsylvania Rep. Mark Critz in his Democratic primary against Rep. Jason Altmire.
In both races, the divisions caused by the 2008 superdelegate fight are obvious. Sherman was an early supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton, while Berman endorsed Barack Obama that May. At that point in the campaign, there was a drive among Democrats to get Clinton to drop out.
As for Critz, he was working at the time for the late Rep. John Murtha, one of Clinton’s most ardent supporters. Altmire wavered but never endorsed. According to knowledgeable sources, his hemming and hawing irked the Clintons.
Campaigns past and present that responded to questions from Roll Call said they sought out Clinton’s assistance, rather than the other way around.
“I told him that I was going to face this race against Howard Berman, that we were being put in the same district, the lines weren’t absolutely final but everybody knew,” Sherman said in an interview. “And he said he’d like to do something to help. He wouldn’t do everything I wanted to help, but that he did something and he did.”
When asked whether he got the sense Clinton was looking for candidates to endorse, as former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin did in 2010, Sherman said that was not the case.
“It’s not like he’s in Haiti dealing with the issues of tuberculosis, surfing the Web for Member-on-Member Congressional candidacies. Naw. I brought this to him.”
With five more Democratic Member-vs.-Member primaries left after the conclusion of the Pennsylvania fight next week, many are wondering which contests Clinton might wade into next.
The most obvious race is the New Jersey primary between Reps. Bill Pascrell and Steven Rothman, two well-liked Democrats who were on opposite sides of the 2008 presidential fight. Pascrell backed Hillary Rodham Clinton while Rothman was an early and proud Obama supporter.
In Rothman’s first television ad, released last week, the Congressman touts the fact he was the first Member of the state’s Congressional delegation to back Obama. Unlike in Pennsylvania, where Altmire or Critz will face a competitive general election, the winner of the New Jersey primary is all but assured to win in November. With the two Democrats looking to burnish their party credentials in any way they can, Clinton’s endorsement could be significant.
Pascrell’s campaign declined to comment on whether Clinton might offer an endorsement before the June 5 primary.
Many in the party vehemently deny that Clinton has an ax to grind. Candidates and operatives who have benefited from his support describe a nearly endless reservoir of loyalty from him.
Some of that loyalty has extended down even to municipal races for former supporters and staffers.
Sherman has known Clinton since the 1980s and even backed him against his home-state governor, Jerry Brown, in the 1992 Democratic presidential primary.
Clinton’s involvement in a race can mean appearing at campaign rallies and in direct-mail pieces, added cache, increased momentum and access to a wealth of political wisdom.
But his preferred candidates don’t always win.
He raised eyebrows within the party in 2010 when he backed former Colorado Speaker Andrew Romanoff in the primary against Sen. Michael Bennet. Romanoff, who had backed Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008, lost the contest to the sitting Senator.
Clinton is travelling to El Paso, Texas, on Tuesday to campaign for Rep. Silvestre Reyes, who faces a competitive May primary. Reyes was a supporter of Hillary Rodham Clinton in 2008.
One of the most effective ways the former president has been deployed is through robocalls.
Clinton proved earlier this month in Maryland he can still have a major influence on a race. Weeks out from Election Day in the state’s hotly contested 6th district Democratic primary, he endorsed businessman John Delaney. At first glance, it seemed to come out of nowhere that a former president would endorse a political neophyte like Delaney.
But Delaney was a bundler for Hillary Rodham Clinton’s 2008 campaign. As it turned out, the endorsement was the turning point in the campaign and Delaney went on to a landslide win over a state legislator for whom the district had been drawn.
“I think loyalty matters to him,” said Delaney campaign manager Justin Schall, who has done past advance work for Clinton. “But I also believe he took a hard look at the race, and I believe he understood that John Delaney has the best chance of helping Democrats gain control of the House again.”
Shira Toeplitz contributed to this report.