Over the next few weeks you’re going to hear a lot about endorsements. First, the presumptive presidential nominees will say something wrong; something from his or her past will resurface; or, especially with these two, a new controversy will dominate the news cycle.
In response, Montana candidates for higher office and those already elected will be asked, “Do you endorse them?” Or, “Do you endorse what they say?” And many of our local politicians will squirm before answering, often along the line of, “I support the party’s nominee.”
For Donald Trump, it may be about his criticism of the judge presiding over a lawsuit against Trump University who Trump claims is unfair because of his Mexican heritage, even though the judge was born in Indiana. For Hillary Clinton, it could be about the investigation surrounding the private email she used while secretary of state. Politicians and candidates will be asked, “Do you support that?”
It’s already happening among the country’s most powerful Republicans, who every day are drilled about something their presumptive nominee has said or done. Mitch McConnell is over it, telling the press “I was asked in the course of last week on numerous occasions to express myself on various utterances of our nominee. I have done that and unless there was some new comment today, I don’t have anything to add.” Speaker of the House Paul Ryan initially refused to endorse Trump, then he did, then he called him a racist, then he reiterated his support for the presumptive nominee.
This has had a trickle-down effect in Montana. Emilie Saunders, communications director for Superintendent of Public Instruction and Democratic congressional candidate Denise Juneau, asked on Twitter last week whether Republican Montana U.S. Congressman Ryan Zinke would condemn “Trump’s dangerous attack on a federal judge?” Heather Swift, Zinke’s communications director, promptly countered, “Who did Ms. Juneau vote for?”
To be sure, Clinton has her own baggage. From the private emails to Benghazi to the speaking fees she charged big banks, which, to many, was part of Bernie Sanders’ appeal and one of the reasons the Democratic primary lasted so long.
The difference is Zinke has actively campaigned for Trump. He introduced Trump in Billings and said he talked about serving as the candidate’s vice president, although he seems unlikely to be picked. Zinke did reiterate to the Great Falls Tribune last week that he doesn’t’ “agree with Donald Trump on 100 percent of the issues.”
That line will continue to be used on both sides as the two most disliked candidates in decades were elected as the standard bearers for the country’s two major political parties. And the effect that unpopularity has down the general election ticket could decide which party controls the U.S. Senate and perhaps who wins Montana’s statewide elections.
Elsewhere, some candidates are already hedging their bets. Illinois GOP Sen. Mark Kirk, who is in a tough reelection campaign, unendorsed Trump last week, citing the candidate’s temperament. South Carolina Republican Sen. Lindsay Graham has asked his fellow Republicans to do the same. Closer to home, Montana Sen. Jon Tester still hadn’t endorsed Clinton last week, one of the last Democratic Party holdouts.
A lot will happen between now and the election. What if Clinton is indicted? What if more lawsuits filed against Trump are unsealed? Whatever happens, more than just the presidential candidates will have to answer for it.