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Republicans Consider Controversial Change to Primary Calendar


Republicans will meet in Kansas City this week for the Republican National Committee’s annual summer meeting. (St. Petersburg Times/ZUMApress.com)

Today, Republican Party officials representing every state and territory in the country convene in Kansas City for the Republican National Committee’s annual summer meeting. Generally, the event is a chummy and predictable affair, an opportunity for attendees to hobnob between conferences. But the upcoming four days are shaping up to be tense, as party officials find themselves divided over a proposal to reform the GOP’s presidential nomination process for the 2012 election.

[Congress1] On Friday, attendees plan to decide whether to implement new rules encouraging states to push primary votes back from January and February to the late winter and early spring months. Only the traditional lead states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — would be permitted to hold their primaries in February, but not in January, as they currently do. States holding contests in March would have to award delegate votes in some form of proportional system, rather than winner-takes-all.

The changes, and the imminent vote on them, are furrowing brows. “There is concern about what the ramifications would be of change — of any change,” notes one RNC official with serious qualms with the proposal. (Each state and U.S. territory has three RNC officials — a chair, one committeeman and one committeewoman — all of whom are eligible to vote at the summer meeting.) Indeed, a number of RNC officials have raised concerns, in both public and private, about everything from which states get to go first to whether the changes might privilege certain presidential hopefuls over others.

RNC officials are annoyed by the up-or-down nature of the vote. If the proposal gets the nod of two-thirds of attendees, it passes wholesale. Otherwise, it does not. Moreover, they are positively anxious about the possibility of throwing the 2012 presidential nominating process into even greater chaos than in 2008. Thus, a growing number of RNC members are promising to vote against the proposed changes, jeopardizing the chances that the long-touted reforms will pass.

During the 2008 presidential primary cycle, the RNC punished five states for moving their primary dates before Feb. 5. To stop states from trying to move earlier and earlier, Republicans voted at the national convention to draw up new rules for a vote at the 2010 Kansas City meeting. “The process has become more and more frontloaded,” explains Morton Blackwell, a RNC official from Virginia. “We were having what appeared to be a national primary and frankly that is not a good idea.”

As a remedy, the temporary committee tasked with changing the primary process came up with a complicated proposal to dissuade states from moving their contests forward. In addition to pushing back the traditional January contests to February, the proposal would tinker with how states’ delegates vote. States choosing to hold their contests in March would be required to award at least some of their votes proportionately, rather than winner-takes-all. That would likely make the Republican primary more competitive, for longer, observers think. (States holding primaries after March could award their delegates’ votes winner-takes-all or proportionately.)

“I think what’s probably going to happen here is it will lengthen the process [until Republicans have a clear winner] and it will give more candidates the ability to be competitive over a longer amount of time,” argues Bruce Ash, an RNC official from Arizona and the head of the Rules Committee. “I believe in the process of giving voters and our party supporters and activists as much of a role in selecting our next president as possible.”

Other committee officials, however, are concerned about the idea of an extended primary battle and its ramifications for Republicans’ chances in 2012. “The Democrats have a president who is going to be nominated by their party at the convention,” points out one national official. “So the longer that our side has a fight, the more money we have to spend in the primary battling each other and not Obama. In my opinion and [that of] others, it’s to the Democrats’ advantage to elongate the nominating process.”

Also to the advantage of Democrats is the possibility that an extended primary process might allow a candidate from outside the mainstream to catch fire and steal the nomination. Blackwell, who supports the proposed changes, is pleased by the idea that a longer process “makes it possible for someone who doesn’t start with a huge amount of money to develop the support warranted by their behavior over time.” But there’s also a good chance the political outsider could be a more radically conservative figure — a prospect that Democrats would love.

RNC officials also worry whether states will even be able to comply with the new guidelines, and if not, the chaos that might engulf the Republican nominating process as a result. And because the RNC, unlike the DNC, is not traditionally authorized to change the party rules between national conventions, the proposed changes represent a risky one-time shot.

If the new rules pass, multiple RNC officials fear, the nearly thirty states with primaries now in February will have to change their state laws in order to avoid being out of compliance. Many of them will also have to work out how to award their delegates through some sort of proportional system, if they move to March. In some states, that might just not be possible.

“Ohio would have to ask the legislature and get everybody in line to change the date of the primary. These are always unpredictable requests,” observes Joanne Davidson, an RNC official for Ohio. “I keep getting emails from different states offering amendments to exclude themselves from the provision.”

Michigan, too, might face a bind if Democrats in the state legislature follow through on their threats to keep the state’s presidential primary date the same, grouses another committee official. And Georgia has made its worries open that, because it must preclear any changes to its elections rules with the Justice Department, it also might be inconvenienced by the new schedule.

“Chaos is the Democrats’ friend — makes no difference to them,” argues the committeeman who worried also about a longer GOP nominating cycle. “Chaos is going to cause confusion, money, and if you’re on the Democratic side, you’re all for it.”

“A little earlier I thought [the measure] would pass but now I can’t be sure,” says Davidson, who remains undecided. The proposed changes require a two-thirds majority vote before the full committee to pass on Friday, and so far, according to another committeeman, “It’s up in the air.”

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