As Republican party leaders mount a desperate effort to derail the U.S. presidential campaign of billionaire Donald Trump, many of the party’s 31 state governors are staying out of the fray.
When New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez steps onto a Kansas stage on Friday to endorse Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio, she will be only the 10th governor to back one of the four candidates remaining in a nominating contest that could define the party for years to come.
Far more typical is Governor Rick Scott of Florida who said on Thursday he would not endorse a candidate before his state’s hotly contested March 15 primary.
That is a sharp contrast to previous elections, when governors lined up solidly behind the party’s eventual nominee, helping to winnow the field of candidates early on.
Perplexed by a chaotic race that has divided their party, many of them are keeping a low profile to avoid a possible backlash from voters who are increasingly contemptuous of party leaders, Republican officials say.
“It’s a lose-lose political situation,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chairman.
In past elections, a governor’s endorsement could produce a burst of positive news coverage and the support of well-connected local leaders for a presidential contender.
That would encourage other elected officials to endorse the candidate as well, creating an impression that the candidate was a favorite of those who knew best and encouraging others to drop out of the race, said David Karol, a University of Maryland political science professor who has found that endorsements were a strong predictor of electoral success between 1980 and 2004.
“The absence of most of the governors this late in the process really indicates the paralysis and division in Republican elite circles,” Karol said.
Many don’t want to discuss Trump, who has made his party’s establishment uneasy with his abrasive tone and policy positions, including plans to build a wall on the U.S.-Mexican border, deport 11 million illegal immigrants and temporarily bar Muslims from entering the country.
Those still on the fence do not seem eager to talk. The 18 undecided Republican governors, contacted by Reuters, declined an interview to discuss their views on the race.
George W. Bush, elected president in 2000, had the support of 26 of the party’s 30 Republican governors before primary voting even started, according to figures compiled by James Madison University political science professor Martin Cohen, who with Karol is a co-author of “The Party Decides: Presidential Nominations Before and After Reform.”
In 2012, 10 of 29 Republican governors had endorsed Mitt Romney by the time he clinched the presidential nomination.
This year, governors are not sending a clear signal to voters. Five have endorsed Rubio, a U.S. senator from Florida who has won one nominating contest so far. Two have endorsed John Kasich of Ohio, the only governor left in the race, who has won no contests. Two have endorsed front-runner Donald Trump. One has backed U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Three others endorsed candidates who have since dropped out of the race.
The governors who have made endorsements so far have had little impact. Rubio lost in Tennessee, South Carolina and Arkansas, despite the backing of governors in those states. Kasich got only 4 percent of the vote in Alabama on Tuesday after that state’s Governor Robert Bentley endorsed him.
Iowa Governor Terry Branstad called on voters in his state to reject Cruz before the state’s February caucuses. Cruz won.
So far, only Texas Governor Greg Abbott has picked a winner. He endorsed Cruz, who won Texas on Tuesday.
Trump has put many governors in a difficult position. The billionaire real estate developer is expected to easily win Mississippi’s Republican primary next Tuesday, for example, but his support for Planned Parenthood and government-backed health insurance, among other policies, put him at odds with the conservative positions backed by Governor Phil Bryant.
Bryant will support Trump should he end up being the party’s nominee, but he has not decided whether to endorse a candidate before the primary, an aide told Reuters.
WINNING AT THE STATE LEVEL
In theory, governors should be in a position to shape the outcome of this year’s nominating contests. Republicans at the state level have delivered tax cuts, abortion restrictions and other conservative victories from Maine to Arizona, while their counterparts in charge of Congress have been locked in a stalemate with Democratic President Barack Obama.
But the plethora of establishment-minded candidates this year has made it more difficult for governors and other senior officials to decide who to back, let alone try to shape the outcome with an endorsement.
Republican governors in Maryland, Florida, Wyoming, Indiana, Wisconsin, North Dakota, South Dakota, Arizona, Nebraska and Michigan declined to say whether they would back Trump if he were the party’s nominee.
Governors in Utah, Oklahoma, North Carolina and Georgia have yet to endorse a candidate but would back Trump if he won the nomination, aides said.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker told reporters this week he would not vote for Trump in the November election.
Those who take a stand do not necessarily have it any easier.
New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who ended his own presidential bid last month, has faced relentless criticism since he announced his support for Trump last week. Six newspapers in his home state have called on him to resign.
So it may be no surprise that Michigan Governor Rick Snyder, who is fighting for his own political life amid a scandal over tainted drinking water, will not risk alienating more of his constituents by backing a candidate before Tuesday’s primary.
“Right now Governor Snyder is focused on solving the crisis in Flint, not on politics,” spokesman Ari Adler said.
(Additional reporting by Nick Carey, Sharon Bernstein, Ian Simpson, Alex Dobuzinskis and Scott Malone; Editing by Kevin Drawbaugh and Howard Goller)