GOP Cracks Down on 2016 Primary Calendar (and, Florida, This Means You)

The Republican National Committee is expected to stiffen penalties against states that schedule early primaries. That’s anybody not named Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, or Nevada.

TAMPA, FL - AUGUST 30: People listen as Republican presidential candidate, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney delivers his nomination acceptance speech during the final day of the Republican National Convention at the Tampa Bay Times Forum on August 30, 2012 in Tampa, Florida. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney was nominated as the Republican presidential candidate during the RNC which will conclude today.
National Journal
Beth Reinhard
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Beth Reinhard
Jan. 22, 2014, 3:30 p.m.

For Re­pub­lic­ans yearn­ing for a less front-loaded, more or­derly pres­id­en­tial nom­in­at­ing con­test, the long na­tion­al night­mare may be over.

The Re­pub­lic­an Na­tion­al Com­mit­tee is poised this week to en­act its toughest crack­down yet on states that try to in­fringe on the spe­cial, first-in-the-na­tion status af­forded to Iowa, New Hamp­shire, South Car­o­lina, and Nevada.

Flor­ida, this means you. In the last two pres­id­en­tial elec­tions, the state held its earli­est primar­ies ever in an ef­fort to wield more in­flu­ence over the nom­in­at­ing pro­cess. That led the four states picked to hold the first primar­ies to sched­ule them even earli­er, turn­ing Christ­mas in­to crunch time.

The RNC cut Flor­ida’s prize bounty of 99 del­eg­ates in half and re­leg­ated its del­eg­ates to a far-flung hotel — even for the 2012 con­ven­tion held in their home state. And while some Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­ans count­ing on bet­ter floor seats and short­er bus rides howled, the late-Janu­ary primary worked as planned. The na­tion’s largest swing state clinched the deal for John Mc­Cain in 2008 and Mitt Rom­ney in 2012.

But un­der the new rules to be voted on by RNC of­fi­cials meet­ing in Wash­ing­ton on Thursday and Fri­day, Flor­ida’s clout would be re­duced to only 12 del­eg­ates if it sched­uled a primary be­fore March 1. Smal­ler states that break the rules would get only nine del­eg­ates.

“This is ser­i­ous stuff,” said Mor­ton Black­well, the Re­pub­lic­an na­tion­al com­mit­tee­man from Vir­gin­ia who serves on the party’s rules com­mit­tee. “Flor­ida didn’t seem to care they were cut in half, but I think they will now.”

He’s right. In the clos­ing hours of the 2013 ses­sion in May, know­ing the stricter rules were com­ing, Flor­ida law­makers nixed the Janu­ary primary as part of a sweep­ing elec­tion-re­form meas­ure. The new law says the state con­test will be held “on the first Tues­day that the rules of the ma­jor polit­ic­al parties provide for state del­eg­a­tions to be al­loc­ated without pen­alty.”

End of night­mare. Iowa and New Hamp­shire Re­pub­lic­ans get to pre­serve their first-in-the-na­tion tra­di­tions. Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­ans get to dream of front-row con­ven­tion seats in 2016.

“We are all singing the same tune,” said Flor­ida Re­pub­lic­an Chair­man Lenny Curry. “The 2012 rules is­sue is in the rear­view mir­ror.”

Hold on. There’s also an in­ter­est­ing sub­plot in­volving Marco Ru­bio and pres­id­en­tial polit­ics.

Ru­bio spear­headed the early-primary law as a le­gis­lat­ive lead­er in Flor­ida, ar­guing that nom­in­ees needed to be vet­ted in a big, di­verse state. ”With all due re­spect to New Hamp­shire and Iowa, nowhere are you go­ing to be on a na­tion­al stage like Flor­ida,” Ru­bio said back in 2006. “You’re go­ing to get ques­tions about Is­rael, Lat­in Amer­ica, im­mig­ra­tion. It’s the old South, it’s Lat­in, it’s Mid­west­ern, it’s rur­al and urb­an.”

The law passed in 2007 with great fan­fare. But Ru­bio, now a U.S. sen­at­or eye­ing a pos­sible pres­id­en­tial bid in 2016, quietly lob­bied le­gis­lat­ive lead­ers back home in the spring to do away with the Janu­ary primary. Poli­ti­fact rated the change of heart a “full flip-flop.” Asked to ex­plain, Ru­bio spokes­man Alex Con­ant asked, “Isn’t it ob­vi­ous?”

“The RNC passed new rules and is now im­pos­ing the equi­val­ent of the death pen­alty on states who go early,” Con­ant ad­ded. “Which means can­did­ates will just skip Flor­ida in­stead of spend­ing money on a state that awards them no del­eg­ates. So the whole reas­on for mov­ing up in the first place has been neg­ated.”

That Ru­bio him­self might be on the bal­lot in 2016 and would need to curry fa­vor with tra­di­tion-lov­ing Re­pub­lic­ans in Iowa and New Hamp­shire goes without say­ing.

“People in Iowa were really mad about what Flor­ida did, from the party lead­er­ship to the grass­roots, and it wreaked hav­oc with the cam­paigns,” said Robert Haus, a long­time Re­pub­lic­an con­sult­ant based in Des Moines. “The RNC and Ru­bio should be com­men­ded for help­ing to bring san­ity to the sched­ule.”

Re­pub­lic­an of­fi­cials are also ex­plor­ing new guidelines to cut down on the num­ber of primary de­bates and to move up their con­ven­tion to early sum­mer. In the view of many act­iv­ists, Rom­ney suffered some bruises dur­ing the roughly 20 de­bates in 2011 and 2012 and didn’t have enough time to pre­pare for the gen­er­al elec­tion against Pres­id­ent Obama.

“We wants a nom­in­at­ing pro­cess that’s long enough so that we know we get a good can­did­ates that’s been vet­ted, but we don’t want it to be dragged out as much as it was last time,” said Mis­sis­sippi com­mit­tee­man Henry Bar­bour, an­oth­er rules-com­mit­tee mem­ber. “I think it will make for a level play­ing field.”

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