Enough with Endorsement Angst

Under The Hood


The level of uproar I’ve seen around an intra-party squabble in Venice has been as outrageous as it is overblown. The decision by leaders of the Republican County of Sarasota County to endorse one party member over another in a nonpartisan race—only to withdraw that endorsement after the revelation the move violated the organization’s own bylaws—has been described in dramatic terms. It’s McCarthyism! It’s Fascism!

It’s actually none of those things for a political organization to make an endorsement, even if this entire affair has exposed what a bad idea it may be for the party executive committee to begin picking favorites. We likely won’t be able to tell even after votes get counted on Nov. 7 whether this hullabaloo had any effect on the outcome of a small, municipal election. But the question of whether the Republican executive committee issues endorsements when two Republicans seek a nonpartisan seat will extend at least into School Board races next year.

The background of this minor race came when Deborah Anderson, an incumbent Venice City Councilwoman, came under fire for past support of non-Republican candidates. So party leaders held interviews with candidates and in October issued an endorsement of another Republican, Charles Newsom.  That endorsement got pulled back once someone actually read the bylaws and realized this type of move broke the organizations’ rules. So basically, all the embarrassing headlines and divisive meetings and calls of fascism totalitarianism proved to be for nothing.

Of course, all of the individuals working for Newsom’s election over Anderson can still do so. In fact, supporting one Republican over another Republican wouldn’t even violate the principal that got Anderson in trouble with the GOP-or-else faction; a Republican will control this Venice City Council seat regardless of the election result. And looking at other metrics, Anderson has reported just $1,102 in campaign contributions, less than a tenth of Newsom’s $11,700. Money isn’t everything, especially in these local races, but it’s fair to say that if Newsom wins it will have far more to do with that war chest than any break in party ranks. Heck, the negative publicity surrounding this whole affair might be the greatest thing Anderson has going for her politically.

That leaves me wondering why GOP leaders wasted such capital on a small contest. The reason, most certainly, is turning the party into an ideological force rather than just a community organizing machine. Ironically, it’s the success of the Republican party in Sarasota that makes that transition difficult. Republicans hold every Sarasota County Commission seat, the only state Senate seat and all but one state House seat in the area. And outside of the city of Sarasota, registered Republicans also enjoy majority support on all the major (and non-major) nonpartisan commissions such as the School Board and city commissions.

This means moderates with no particular party rigidness end up registering Republican if they want to be involved in politics at all, and it means that many rank voters who are satisfied with the quality of life and general status quo end up backing long-time Republican leaders. It’s actually much easier to enforce ideological purity in a minority party, the enclave of political outcasts.

But frankly, no one should mistake a local political leadership as representative of an entire party regardless. The Republican Party of Sarasota, and the Sarasota Democratic Party in races where this comes up, remains just one of many political organizations in town, and happens to be one with great voter databases thanks to involvement in presidential and other major campaigns. Who the party endorses matters less than most voters might think, hence why we here more backlash about endorsements than we ever see major results. If the Republican Party leaders in an area want to endorse someone, that doesn’t matter any more, or maybe even as much, as winning the endorsement of a less ideological but still well-funded group like the Florida Realtors.

A political organization making an endorsement isn’t fascism, but it may be folly. And that’s probably a bigger problem for insiders making the move than outsiders enraged by it.

Jacob Ogles is contributing senior editor for SRQ Media Group.

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