In the final days before states submit their primary and caucus plans to the Republican National Committee, the GOP is sweating bullets over the possibility that a gang of rogue states could still wreak havoc on the 2012 presidential nominating process.
One state, Arizona, has already announced that it will violate RNC rules and hold its primary on February 28 – a full week before joint RNC-Democratic National Committee rules permit states to do so. Michigan’s legislature is also moving toward scheduling its vote for the same date.
Then there’s Florida, a repeat offender when it comes to calendar mischief, which has empaneled a committee to choose an election date that’s expected to fall before the RNC-sanctioned date of March 6.
“Florida and perhaps other states feel with their size that they should have greater impact than they’ve had in the past,” said former Florida Gov. Bob Martinez, who was named to the state’s primary commission Friday. “To have greater impact, you have to go earlier.”
Georgia Secretary of State Brian Kemp, who has the power to select a date for his state’s primary, said Georgia may also decide to join the small throng crowding the early end of the 2012 calendar.
“I’ve been following what Arizona did and I’m still following what other states like Michigan and Florida may do. That certainly could have an influence on us,” Kemp told POLITICO. “It’s important for everybody to know we have all options still on the table and we’re going to continue to watch what everyone else does.”
The order of states in the 2012 calendar is more than an arcane procedural issue. Every time a state leapfrogs the calendar, it scrambles the strategic calculus for presidential candidates who have largely focused on a small band of officially sanctioned early primaries.
According to RNC and DNC rules, only four states are permitted to vote before the “Super Tuesday” date of March 6: Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina.
States that schedule elections before that point risk having their delegations to the Republican National Convention cut in half, raising the prospect of a summer fight over whose delegates get seated and whose don’t.
Another response is that traditional early states such as South Carolina may move their primaries even earlier to avoid sharing election dates with brazen newcomers like Arizona.
Presidential candidates then have to decide whether to compete in potentially messy, unsanctioned contests.
The candidates’ response to Arizona was telling: Even though the state is openly defying the RNC, Mitt Romney and Michele Bachmann both visited within days of Gov. Jan Brewer’s decision to hold a primary in late February.
That could effectively send a signal to the other undecided states that, whatever the RNC says, candidates are prepared to reward their bad behavior.
Michigan Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis, a Romney supporter, predicted that a few more states may schedule their elections for the end of February and then “beg for mercy” from the RNC when it comes time to hand out delegates.
“If they go February 28 or later, I think we will at least have succeeded at moving the calendar out of the holidays,” said Anuzis, who pointed to Florida as the state still most likely to tear up the process. “If Florida goes early and forces the others to move, we could very easily be back to the 2008 calendar.”
In addition to the states that are all but explicitly daring the party to penalize them, several others are likely to hold early, non-binding caucuses that would start the process of choosing delegates near the beginning of February.
States such as Colorado, Louisiana, Minnesota and Maine wouldn’t draw an automatic penalty from the RNC for starting the caucus process early, since they conduct multi-stage contests that wouldn’t actually allocate delegates until later.
Republicans in would-be early caucus states say they hope to get local activists fired up for the 2012 cycle by starting the process closer to the beginning of the year.
“What we’re doing is really more about helping us continue to rebuild our party,” said Maine GOP Chairman Charlie Webster, whose state will hold an initial round of caucuses between February 4 and February 11. “We might get some of the folks, some of the campaigns to participate in a rally on the 11th of February. I will personally seek out some of the presidential candidates to see if they have any interest in sending somebody.”
Colorado Republican Party Chairman Ryan Call, whose state committee is still deciding whether to hold local caucuses on either March 6 or February 7, took a similar view of the process.
“There’s a real sense that Colorado’s voice ought to be heard in selecting the candidate who’s eventually the nominee,” he said. “Certainly we would hope that the presidential candidates would want to come to Colorado to compete, following the Iowa caucuses.”
Louisiana Republicans also plan on holding early, non-binding caucuses, though the date hasn’t been chosen yet, said state central committee member Charlie Davis.
“We still plan to go early. We won’t set the exact date until we know when the other states are going,” he wrote in an email.
RNC insiders have expressed a combination of relief and trepidation over the state of the calendar – relief at the fact that a 2008-style stampede toward the front of the schedule has been avoided, but also anxiety over the possibility that things could break down in the next two weeks.
Even aside from the states known to be weighing early primaries and caucuses, a strategist for one presidential campaign suggested there could be additional surprises before October 1.
“There’s probably two or three other [states] out there that are unknown,” the strategist said. “The more that you have people moving up, the easier it is for other states to move up.”
It’s not clear whether any individual presidential candidate would benefit most from late changes to the calendar, though it’s likely that Romney and Rick Perry – the best-known, best-funded candidates – would be the most prepared to compete on an expanded early primary map.
Among the states that are moving up, several look friendly to Romney, including Michigan, which voted for Romney in the 2008 primaries, in part thanks to fond memories of his father’s tenure as governor there.
Other newcomers to the early-state circuit could cut either way. In Arizona and Colorado, Romney would likely benefit from the sizable Mormon population, but Perry might do well thanks to his status as a Western governor.
As the most culturally Southern candidate in the race, Perry might be expected to do well in Georgia, but that’s also a state Romney came close to winning in 2008.
The only sure outcome of the late-shifting calendar is to throw even more uncertainty into an already fluid Republican nomination fight.
John Ryder, an RNC member from Tennessee who was one of the architects of the 2012 calendar, said the outstanding calendar problems would likely be “limited” – but predicted there would still be penalties to hand out at the 2012 convention.
That would mean stripping states of their delegates and potentially denying floor passes and other perks to delegates from out-of-order states.
“If the violation of the rules is so extreme that it blows up the calendar, then probably the full range of sanctions will be imposed,” Ryder said. “If you don’t follow the rules, you have chaos.”
Former RNC general counsel David Norcross noted optimistically that whatever happens with the still-undecided states, it’s “better than the stampede” the party saw last cycle.
“Obviously it’s not too late for a stampede to happen,” he said. “But it’s getting later and later.”