Cross-Party Endorsements Support Candidates, Not Canons

With the political parties more divided than ever, it has been surprisingly difficult to keep track of party lines in this year’s Pennsylvania primary. In May, Democrat Joe Sestak defeated Sen. Arlen Specter, a former Republican who switched to the Democratic Party not long beforehand. Sestak is now running a heated race against Republican Pat Toomey, and happily accepting endorsements from members of his opponent’s party.

On Monday, former Nebraska Republican senator Chuck Hagel announced his endorsement of Sestak for Senate, Politico reports. Hagel said in a speech in Pittsburgh on Tuesday afternoon that his views had changed since the first time he voted—on an absentee ballot filled out in Vietnam—and he was no longer voting straight Republican, reports the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He added that Sestak’s “independence” would be helpful to both parties in Washington.

This is not the first time Hagel has thumbed his nose at his party. In 2008, he refused to endorse Sen. John McCain in his bid for the presidency—Hagel’s wife even went as far as to throw her weight behind Obama. Sestak also has experience disappointing leaders in his party, most recently by defeating Specter, who was the chosen candidate for top Democrats such as Obama and Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell, the AP reports.

Why is a retired politician from Nebraska weighing in on a Senate race in Pennsylvania, and will it even help Sestak? Hagel's reasons are unclear, although they are the subject of much speculation. While endorsements in general have little effect, cross-party endorsements are so rare in this age of all-for-one and one-for-all party politics that they invariably garner heavy news coverage, with the question of ulterior motives often dwelled upon. The following are examples of cross-party endorsements in recent political history, including Hagel's, and the possible reasons behind them.

The Sucking-Up-for-a-Job Endorsement: A report in The Atlantic suggest that Hagel’s cross-party endorsement may have something to do with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates’s recently announced 2011 departure. If Hagel has his eye on that position, cozying up to a Democrat might help. But it also might backfire if the chosen Democrat has recently ticked off the president.

The Shared-Cause Endorsement: Hagel and Sestak share not only a military background—as a Vietnam veteran and a retired naval officer, respectively—both have been critical of the decision to invade Iraq and the mismanagement of the resulting war. Hagel penned a column for The Washington Post in 2006 questioning U.S. military strategy in Iraq. And both Hagel and Sestak have said that military efforts should have been focused in Afghanistan, not Iraq.

The For-the-Sake-of-Bipartisanship Endorsement: Hagel is not the only big-name endorsement Sestak has in his corner; New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has also publicly backed Sestak’s campaign. Bloomberg’s comments, which like Hagel’s also cite Sestak’s “independence” as being what Washington needs, led one to view this endorsement by a Republican turned independent as an endorsement intended to bolster Bloomberg's bipartisan credentials. Hagel has become, like Bloomberg, one of those politicians whose willingness to cross the aisle on the issues makes them favorites of every high-minded political pundit. Now that Hagel is out of office and not able to work on those issues in the Senate, throwing his weight around with a cross-party endorsement is one way to remind centrist Washington how much it loves him.

The Personal-Relationship Endorsement: If Sen. Joe Lieberman held any allegiance to the Democratic Party, on whose ticket he ran for vice president in 2000, he had a funny way of showing it in 2008. The longtime friend of the Clinton family was so indifferent toward the Democratic race that he didn’t even vote in the primaries, according to The New York Times. Whether based on frustrations with his former party—he is now an independent, having switched after losing the Democratic primary for his seat in 2006, although he caucuses with the Democrats—or his friendship with the Republican nominee, Lieberman endorsed Sen. John McCain for president in 2008. Lieberman’s ongoing support of the Iraq War was in line with McCain's views, but as the Times reports, that sentiment was not one favored in Connecticut. Sestak was no stranger to Hagel, either. In his endorsement speech in Pittsburgh, Hagel said that while the two may have their differences, they had worked together on passing the post-9/11 GI Bill, extending benefits for military veterans.

The Party-Backlash Endorsement: When Colin Powell endorsed Obama for president in 2008, it quickly gave credibility to the Obama camp, but it also came as a surprise to many, given that he was a Republican member of the Bush administration, MSNBC reported. Powell said he was disappointed with the conduct of the GOP campaign and McCain’s choice of Sarah Palin. It's possible that Hagel, whose position on Iraq separated him from much of his party, is partly motivated by opposition to Pat Toomey's hard-right views.



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