Republican state parties are suddenly jockeying for advantage on the 2016 presidential primary calendar, with Nevada hoping to leapfrog South Carolina as the No. 3 contest, and several states, including Texas and Florida, looking to create a Mega Tuesday election on the first day in March.
The rapidly intensifying competition is fomenting some bitterness among the state party chairmen and threatening to complicate Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus’ best-laid plans to move up the GOP convention to June 2016 to avoid a brokered nomination and bring order and fairness to the way the GOP selects its nominee.
“The biggest concern has always been pricing grass-roots candidates out of the race,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Matt Moore said. “It will clearly be expensive to compete after February.”
Even as his own state tries to move up the calendar to mid-February, Mr. Moore worries more about the impact of the changes being contemplated for March 2016, when several states hope to slide their contests forward to become more relevant to the outcome.
“It might help an extremely well-funded candidate who doesn’t need to reload following South Carolina and Nevada,” Mr. Moore said in one of several Washington Times interviews with state party chairmen.
It is not lost on GOP officials what this means for 2012 presidential nominee Mitt Romney and for Florida’s Jeb Bush, the son of one former president and brother of another.
Should either run, Mr. Romney and Mr. Bush are among the few — perhaps the only — potential candidates who, from the instant they announce their candidacy, could count on more than enough financial largesse from major donors to compete effectively in all of the most expensive states.
Even so, it’s not clear that any candidate could emerge as the de facto nominee after mid-March or even after the Republican National Convention convenes, probably in late June, some fear.
A Southern Super Tuesday followed by a Midwestern Super Tuesday between March 1 and March 14 would, under RNC rules, mean that every state party participating would award its delegates in proportion to the percentage of the total vote each candidate received in that state.
States that go after March 14 will be allowed to award all their delegates to the highest vote recipient in their primaries or caucuses.
“If those two Super Tuesdays materialize, all of those states will be following proportional rules,” Arizona RNC member Bruce Ash said. “So I am not sure how likely we will see a candidate come forth by the third or fourth week of March as a clear consensus choice, unless he really is a clear consensus choice from a bunch of early states.”
“The rules the RNC adopted helped to level the playing field so any viable candidate would have a chance to emerge as a front-runner eventually in a more organic fashion,” Mr. Ash explained.
But his scenario assumes all the nomination candidates will be able to afford to compete effectively in those two Mega Tuesday contests. A well-financed, well-executed campaign could still walk away with a crushingly huge share of the proportionally awarded delegates.
That’s not what Mr. Priebus had in mind. Rather, he wanted to make it hard for a nominee with little grass-roots support to use high name recognition to emerge too early.
At the same time, Mr. Priebus wanted to keep the nominee selection from dragging on for so long that it would be hard to unite a fractured, primary-weary party in time for the general election. Or what is even worse for orderliness: have no nominee emerge at all until the Republican National Convention, setting the stage for a dramatic, unpredictable “brokered convention.”
Mr. Priebus succeeded in one goal by moving the national nominating convention to June from the late-August and early-September dates of recent presidential election cycles.
But the rest of his aspirations are likely to be affected by the jockeying among state party chairmen.
“Having many primaries on the same day makes it possible that a front-runner could wrap it up early, but it also could have [the] opposite effect as different candidates win different states, with none emerging as a front-runner going into the later caucuses and primaries,” Texas GOP Chairman Steve Munisteri explained. “No one has resources to run full out in all the Mega Tuesday states.”
One front where Mr. Priebus is likely to succeed is preventing Nevada and South Carolina from spilling into early January.
That’s because current rules mandate that any of the four traditionally early primary states — known as the “carve out” states — will lose all but nine of their delegates to the June 2016 nominating convention in Cleveland if they go before Feb. 1.
Potentially more worrisome is word that a horde of primary and caucus states led by the two biggest Republican states, Texas and Florida, are contemplating a March 1 Mega Tuesday that conceivably could decide the GOP nomination before more than half the states have their say. That is not what Mr. Priebus had in mind.
“Texas alone, with our mammoth contingent of 155 delegates, will have 14 percent of the 1,141 delegates needed for the Republican presidential nomination,” said Mr. Munisteri, the Texas GOP chairman.
His state also boasts Gov. Rick Perry and Sen. Ted Cruz, both possible 2016 Republican presidential hopefuls.
Conservative states in the South and Southwest will figure big in the March 1 contests, Mr. Munisteri predicted. He is looking at the possibility of the early emergence of a conservative de facto nominee well to the right of John McCain in 2008 and Mr. Romney in 2012.
In addition to trying to persuade the four “carve out” states against holding their primaries before Feb. 1, Mr. Priebus came up with a March 1-14 window for states that want to go next and are willing to sacrifice a winner-take-all delegate apportionment. Those states must award delegates according to the proportion of votes each candidate won.
His aim was to head off a Mega Tuesday pileup of state contests that would amount to a one-day national primary. It would be so expensive to compete in as to eliminate all but the biggest fundraising candidates.
States choosing to hold their nomination primaries and caucuses between March 15 and early May potentially will have the most power to determine the GOP nominee under the current rules. That’s because each of these later states will get to choose proportional or winner-take-all apportionment of its delegates.
The expectation is that surviving nomination contenders, if any, will campaign long, hard and expensively in the winner-take-all states where the candidate with the highest vote total gets all that state’s delegates.
Mr. Priebus was counting on the proportional states to award too few delegates to any one candidate to produce the early emergence of a winner. But that plan could be thrown off course if Mega Tuesday transpires — followed by a second Midwestern Mega Tuesday contest that is being considered for March 15.
The Democrats have scheduled the Iowa Democratic caucuses for Feb. 2 (the state’s GOP is prepared to go along with that date) and New Hampshire’s primary for Feb. 9 (again with GOP agreement).
But then comes Nevada, where the Democrats vote in their caucuses Feb. 20, followed by South Carolina Democrats, who will cast ballots Feb. 27.
The Democratic game plan only reinforced the Nevada GOP’s resolve to go third, ahead of South Carolina’s GOP primary.
“I’m comfortable making that prediction” that Nevada Republicans will do that, said James Smack, Nevada GOP Central Committee member and former state party chairman.
That makes Mr. Moore, South Carolina’s Republican chairman, anything but comfortable.
“We will still be the state that holds the third Republican contest in February,” Mr. Moore predicted.
South Carolina Republicans once did — and probably will again — hold their primary on a different date from the Democrats now that the state government has to pick up most of the tab for two separate primary outings. “In 2008 we went a week earlier than the Democrats,” Mr. Moore said.
The goal of Mr. Priebus and his RNC was avoiding the competitive anarchy of the 2008 and 2012 presidential nomination calendars. Many Republicans claim that cost them the White House twice in a row.
This time, Mr. Priebus and the RNC set the stiffest penalties ever for states that jump the schedule the RNC set. The jockeying over the next few months will determine whether those plans will have the intended effect.