published Wednesday, November 30th, 2011

Mitt Romney short on Tennessee endorsements


by Chris Carroll
  • photo
    Republican presidential candidate and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney speaks during a Republican presidential debate at Oakland University in Auburn Hills, Mich.
    Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

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Mitt Romney hasn’t bought himself much Tennessee love. Yet.

Since 2008, Romney’s political action committees have given a combined $42,300 to the Volunteer State’s top GOP players, including both U.S. senators, Gov. Bill Haslam and six of Tennessee’s seven Republican U.S. representatives.

But only one — U.S. Rep. Jimmy Duncan, a Republican from Knoxville and the dean of Tennessee’s congressional delegation — has endorsed the former governor of Massachusetts and two-time candidate for president this time around.

Otherwise, uncertainty reigns. U.S. Rep. Chuck Fleischmann, R-Chattanooga, said he “appreciates Governor Romney’s help” — $4,500 since 2010 — but isn’t sure if he’ll return the support.

“At this time, Chuck is not endorsing anyone,” said Jordan Powell, a spokesman for Fleischmann. “He believes there are many great candidates in the race, who each bring a lot to the table.”

Romney also has given $4,500 to U.S. Rep. Scott DesJarlais since the South Pittsburg physician entered GOP politics in 2010.

“Right now I’m holding off on endorsing a candidate,” DesJarlais said in an emailed statement. “I look forward to learning about how these candidates’ views coincide with those of my constituents.”

It’s common for presidential hopefuls to donate to senators and congressmen, with the expectation of endorsements, volunteers and other primary-election help in return.

But Romney has taken the practice to a new level in Tennessee, dwarfing other candidates’ influence in the state. In comparison, PACs for Texas Gov. Rick Perry, businessman Herman Cain and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich haven’t given any money to Tennessee officeholders.

Romney’s largesse hasn’t necessarily made Tennessee’s leaders sing out for him, despite more than 1,000 early endorsements from his other financial beneficiaries in America, according to The New York Times. Romney’s poll numbers have slipped since voters began questioning his conservative credentials and exploring other candidates as alternatives.

Tennessee’s senators aren’t so sure themselves. Sen. Bob Corker recently reported two $5,000 Romney PAC donations for his 2012 re-election campaign. But Corker’s situation is complicated because another presidential candidate, ex-Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, gave Corker $10,000 when the former Chattanooga mayor first ran for Senate in 2006.

“Sen. Corker hasn’t endorsed anyone yet,” said Laura Herzog, a spokeswoman for Corker.

Sen. Lamar Alexander finds himself in similar circumstances. Six years after Santorum PAC donated $20,000 to Alexander’s 2002 senatorial campaign, Romney donated $2,300 to his re-election effort.

“I learned a long time ago that people didn’t elect me to tell them how to vote, and we’re learning enough about the candidates that Tennesseans can make up their own minds,” Alexander said in a statement.

Haslam backed Romney’s presidential run in 2008 before getting a $2,500 Romney boost during last year’s gubernatorial campaign. The governor’s influential father and brother, both executives of the Pilot Flying J chain of truck stops, have endorsed Romney for president, but Haslam himself hasn’t committed.

“I think there are some other things that can and will play out,” the governor recently told the Knoxville News Sentinel. “At some point in time, I will endorse. I’m just not there yet.”

Records show Romney has donated a combined $16,000 to U.S. Reps. Diane Black, R-Murfreesboro; Marsha Blackburn, R-Brentwood; and Stephen Fincher, R-Frog Jump.

Fincher declined comment through a spokeswoman, and Black could not be reached for comment. A spokesman for Blackburn said she hasn’t endorsed anyone yet.

The reluctance to endorse anyone comes a little more than a month before the Iowa caucuses start a lengthy process that ends with a single GOP nominee. Tennessee hosts a Republican presidential primary on March 6, and sources said endorsements would surface closer to the election.

U.S. Rep. Phil Roe, R-Johnson City, is the only Republican member of the Tennessee delegation who hasn’t received Romney’s backing, mostly a byproduct of Roe saying he wouldn’t take PAC money.

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