Mike Huckabee isn’t your typical Republican surrogate.
Four years after a presidential campaign transformed him into a national figure, the former Arkansas governor is trying to leave his mark on electoral politics this cycle by lending a hand to his favorite candidates for federal office.
Along the way, he’s made an interesting mix of endorsements that have at times put him at odds with an old foe, and even opposite leading conservative figures like Sarah Palin and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.).
Huckabee started a political action committee in 2008, which he said was designed to “promote conservative principles and help elect conservative candidates at every level of government.”
If that sounds familiar, it’s because a lot of Republican outside groups have proclaimed the same overarching goal.
But the overlap between Huckabee and other Republican players with the same mission doesn’t extend much further, because the former governor has charted an unusual course when it comes to picking candidates to support publicly.
This cycle, Huckabee has backed a handful of candidates running against the preferred choices of the Club for Growth, a anti-tax group that has had a long-running feud with the former governor extending back to 2006. At the time, the group’s government affairs director called Huckabee a “liberal” after he signed a minimum wage increase into law.
In the recently completed Texas Senate GOP primary, Huckabee backed Lt. Governor David Dewhurst over Ted Cruz, who was supported by the club, DeMint and Palin. In Wisconsin, Huckabee has endorsed former governor Tommy Thompson; the club is backing former congressman Mark Neumann. In the Nebraska Senate race, Huckabee chose Jon Bruning over club favorite Don Stenberg. And in North Carolina, Huckabee-backed Richard Hudson defeated the club-backed Scott Keadle in the 8th District primary.
Huckabee has also gotten behind candidates linked to operatives in his inner circle. He endorsed now-Rep. Chuck Fleischmann in 2010 over another club-supported candidate. Fleischmann’s campaign was managed by Chip Saltsman, who also headed Huckabee’s 2008 presidential bid.
There are also overlaps involving Huckabee’s 2008 media consultant, Bob Wickers. Wickers’ firm also worked for Dewhurst and Bruning.
Hogan Gidley, a longtime Huckabee ally and previously the executive director of Huckabee’s PAC, said Huckabee does not take the club’s position under consideration at all when deciding which candidates to back. He pointed to a questionnaire that tests where candidates stand on issues like marriage and abortion as the primary metric for candidate selection and added that the former governor is “a loyal person. If you came out and supported him at any point, a lot of times, he will return the favor.”
Huckabee’s PAC is different from a handful of other GOP outside groups (including DeMint’s super PAC and the club) which also try to steer candidates to victory in another key respect: It doesn't make independent expenditures. What Huckabee brings to the campaign is something altogether different: His personality. His brand of economic populism, recognizable face, and easy demeanor are his chief assets.
Campaigns are well aware of this. In Missouri, Rep. Todd Akin featured him in a TV ad. Dewhurst did the same in Texas.
“He can relate to people on a level other politicians can’t,” said Gidley.
Huckabee’s sway has met with mixed results so far this cycle. He likely deserves some credit for Akin’s win on Tuesday, since Arkansas borders Missouri and the former governor is popular and well-known among Republicans in the region. He also picked a winner in Hudson with his late endorsement. But Dewhurst’s loss to Cruz, and Bruning’s disappointing showing in Nebraska were blows to to Huckabee’s record. The outcome in Michigan’s Senate GOP primary wasn’t any better for him.
This month, Huckabee will be watching Thompson’s performance in Wisconsin and Rep. John Mica, who is challenging fellow Republican Rep. Sandy Adams in Florida. Palin and Rep. Allen West (R-Fla.) are backing Adams. Huckabee stumped for Mica on Wednesday.
Huckabee isn’t a fan of political labels and tends to favor candidates who can point to achievements and results. Or, as he recently put it to National Review, “I value those who come off the field with their own blood smeared across their face and mud in their hair from having competed and won.”
That’s certainly a colorful a quote not every Republican would offer. But as he’s shown with his endorsements, Huckabee is not like every other Republican.