The last time Florida Republicans faced threats over their unauthorized early primary date, they got exactly what they wanted: a chance to play a major role in picking the presidential nominee.
Sen. John McCain’s victory in Florida’s 2008 primary, the earliest in the state's history, largely cinched his claim to the GOP nomination in 2008. All 114 Florida delegates got to go to the convention—and the fact that only half of them were permitted to officially cast votes on the floor for McCain didn’t matter a whit.
So when the Republican parties in Iowa and South Carolina fired a shot across the bow on Thursday and threatened to yank the national convention out of Tampa, Fla., GOP leaders didn’t so much shrug as scoff.
“I look forward to meeting Chairman Floyd and Chairman Strawn in Tampa next summer,” quipped Florida House Speaker Dean Cannon in response to the public browbeating from South Carolina GOP chairwoman, Karen Floyd, and Iowa’s chairman, Matt Strawn.
Florida Senate President Mike Haridopolos emphasized that Florida is not planning to jump in front of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, the four states chosen by the national party to hold the earliest primaries and caucuses in February 2012. Florida isn't supposed to vote until March 1, but state lawmakers have yet to push back the late January date it chose for the 2008 primary.
“We simply want to go fifth,’’ Haridopolos said, adding, “Idle threats by other states are not productive.’’
In a statement issued late on Thursday, Florida GOP Chairman Dave Bitner proposed a late February primary date as a compromise. It's unclear if that will satisfy the earliest voting states, but the bottom line is that their leverage is limited.
GOP leaders in Iowa and South Carolina forgot two important things when they called for a committee to select a new convention site: the map and the math. Republicans cannot win the White House without Florida's mother lode of delegates.
RNC Chief of Staff Jeff Larson acknowledged as much in a statement on Thursday laced with resignation: “The convention will be in Tampa.’’
Even the leader of the New Hampshire Republican Party, equally adamant about his state holding the first primary, undermined his smaller-state cohorts.
“The suggestions that the convention may be moved from Tampa, or that their delegates won’t be counted—I’m sure none of that will come to pass,’’ said Chairman Jack Kimball. “In the end, I am confident that saner minds must and will prevail.’’
“To reward this arrogance with our national convention is a great disservice to the Republican activists, donors, and elected officials nationwide who support the RNC,’’ Strawn said on Thursday. “There must be consequences to the continued slow-walking by Florida legislators to get their state in compliance.’’
South Carolina's Floyd went so far as to suggest alternative cities to Tampa. “The Republican Party is no place for outlaws,’’ added former Nevada Gov. Bob List.
The rhetoric amounts to sticks and stones. The national party has limited control over state primaries; states pick their own dates.
“If the national party or other state parties want to pay for Florida’s elections, they can have them any day they want,’’ said Alex Burgos, a spokesman for Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla. “But as long as the voters of Florida are going to pay for this election, Senator Rubio believes it should be on the most meaningful day possible.’’
The fact that holding the early primary was Rubio’s brainchild when he was Florida House Speaker gives his state party even more leverage. Is the national party going to cross one of its brightest stars and a possible vice presidential nominee?
Once again, Florida is well-positioned to shape the GOP nomination, whether Iowa and South Carolina like it or not. Not only will it likely hold another early primary, but the state party has scheduled a straw poll and nationally televised debate in September that will force the candidates to invest substantial time and money in Florida.
“We now know which delegations are getting hotels in Hernando County,’’ quipped a former executive director of the Republican Party of Florida on Twitter, playfully suggesting that Iowa and South Carolina convention-goers can expect far-flung room assignments thanks to their leaders’ impertinence.
The one development that could dim the confidence of Florida Republicans would be if the candidates, under pressure from the earliest-voting states, agreed to a boycott. That’s what happened in 2008 on the Democratic side, depriving Florida voters of a front-row seat to the epic primary battle between Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
But by the November election, Obama managed to get back into the state’s good graces. By voting for him over McCain, Florida voters dealt a fatal blow to the Republican nominee's White House bid.