By REID J. EPSTEIN
There they go again.
Just as it did in 2008, Florida blew up the carefully constructed 2012 GOP presidential calendar Friday, choosing to hold its presidential primary more than a month ahead of the Republican National Committee-authorized date. It’s a move with far-reaching effects that could remake the presidential primary and caucus landscape — and possibly lead to a nominating season that begins as early as December.
GOP officials in the early states — New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada — delivered strong denunciations of Florida’s leap-frogging act but were coy Friday about when they will announce the dates of their own contests. Still, it’s easy to work backwards from Florida’s Jan. 31 primary to figure out how the new calendar might play out.
Iowa will hold its caucuses the week before the New Hampshire vote. New Hampshire’s constitution requires it votes a week before any other state’s primary. Nevada’s GOP rules require a state caucus on the Saturday after the New Hampshire primary. And South Carolina will hold a primary on a Tuesday or a Saturday, sometime between the Nevada caucus and the Florida primary.
New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner speculated this week that he may schedule a primary in December 2011. Gardner said he won’t announce his state’s primary date until next week “at the earliest.”
Michigan Republican National Committeeman Saul Anuzis said Florida’s flouting of the rules will lead to a 2012 calendar that closely matches the 2008 calendar, when Iowa kicked off the nominating process in early January.
“It also opens the door for several other states to consider going early,” he noted.
National and state party officials from the four early states have been in constant communication this week, coordinating strategy on conference calls and issuing a joint press release Thursday condemning the Florida’s expected action. None expect to announce their dates until next week, after Saturday’s RNC deadline to submit nominating dates and rules.
“We’re going to meet on Monday,” South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly told POLITICO. “I got to talk to the election commission. I’m going to have that meeting first before I do anything.”
Senior RNC officials warned on a background conference call Friday that any rule-breaking state will lose half its delegates to the GOP national convention in August.
New Hampshire’s Gardner has said he’ll abide by state rules and let the state party be penalized by the RNC; it’s not yet clear whether South Carolina and Nevada are now also willing to break RNC rules and move their contests into January.
Iowa Republicans aren’t subject to sanctions because their caucuses are officially non-binding.
Florida GOP officials this week speculated that, with the convention set for Tampa and given Florida’s status as a key swing state in the general election, the RNC will cave in and allow the state to seat its entire delegation, regardless of when its primary takes place.
But the RNC officials stressed Friday that there will be no clemency for rule-breaking states that hold nominating contests before February — whether it’s Florida or anywhere else.
So far only Florida, Arizona and Michigan are in violation of the rules.
“There’s no discretion, there’s not some kind of waiver,” one official said. “Those penalties are in place in our rules. They were enforced in 2008 and they’ll be enforced in 2012.”
Here’s a look at how the calendar could shake out with Florida going on Jan. 31:
January 2012: The most likely scenario is a repeat of 2008, with the Iowa caucus slated for either Jan. 3 or Jan. 10, and New Hampshire going a week later. But with Gardner’s assertion that he’s not ruling out holding the first-in-the-nation primary in December, that could force Iowa to go even earlier.
The Nevada GOP voted in July to tether its caucuses to New Hampshire, passing a rule stating that they will take place on the Saturday after the Granite State primary.
South Carolina, which the RNC had authorized to hold a primary on any Saturday in February, would hold its primary sometime the week after Nevada. South Carolina GOP Chairman Chad Connelly said he is now considering either a Tuesday or a Saturday.
There is some uncertainty about how South Carolina and Nevada will respond. While Florida’s date-selection commission Friday shrugged off the loss of half the state’s delegates as unimportant – “The conventions have become nothing more than a coronation of a de facto nominee that has already been selected,” GOP state Rep. Carlos Lopez-Cantera said – officials in much-smaller Nevada and South Carolina are concerned about the ramifications of moving into January in violation of the rules.
Nevada GOP Chairwoman Amy Tarkanian said she’s convening an emergency meeting of her state party’s executive committee Friday night to determine what to do now that Florida has set its primary for Jan. 31.
“Oh, for crying out loud,” she said when POLITICO informed her of Florida’s action. “Obviously, now we have even more questions for the RNC about what they’re going to do with regard to penalties.”
Jan. 31: With Florida moving up to ensure it goes no later than fifth in the process, it leaves a four-week window — with only non-binding caucus events in several states — before Arizona and Michigan vote Feb. 28.
Feb. 4-11: Maine Republicans will caucus over this week-long period. It’s a non-binding event, meaning the state GOP will not face sanctions for its timing. The Maine GOP will select delegates for the national convention at its state convention in May.
Feb. 7: Non-binding events will take place in Minnesota and Colorado. While Missouri has a primary scheduled, the state legislature may cancel it because the state GOP on Thursday announced that it will select its delegates at caucuses in March, April and June. Both Minnesota and Colorado have non-binding caucuses that will select delegates to the national convention at state conventions later in the spring.
Feb. 28: Arizona and Michigan hold primaries. Because these elections will take place before March 6 — which RNC rules set as the earliest possible nominating date for states other than the states officially authorized to go before then — both states face RNC sanctions.
Michigan GOP Chairman Bobby Schostak cited state law – which requires a primary on the fourth Tuesday in February – as reason for violating RNC rules. But when Missouri had the same issue, its state party agreed to separate the primary from the delegate selection process and schedule caucuses to stay within RNC rules.
March 3: Washington state holds non-binding caucuses. The state legislature cancelled its presidential primary in a cost-saving measure, so the state’s Republicans will select national delegates at their state convention beginning May 31. State GOP Chairman Kirby Wilbur said he’s hoping for a drawn-out nominating contest with no nominee certain by then, which he said would bring candidates to the northwest to campaign for votes in late May.
“We have 43 delegates,” Wilbur said. “We’re hoping they’ll come out and compete for them.”
March 6: Super Tuesday, the first date RNC rules allow states other than New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to holding binding nominating contests. There will be primary elections in Georgia, Massachusetts, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont and Virginia. Idaho and North Dakota will hold caucuses. The Wyoming caucuses, which last five days, also begin.
RNC rules assert that states that hold their nominating contests in March will award delegates proportionally to the candidates, while primaries and caucuses held after April 1 may be winner-take-all. RNC officials said Friday they hoped the proportional allocation would lead candidates to campaign in states that vote in March – because candidates could still claim some delegates in states they may not win outright.
The rest of March: Alabama, Mississippi, Illinois and Louisiana hold primary elections. Kansas, Hawaii and Missouri hold caucuses.
April 3: Maryland, Wisconsin and Washington, D.C., hold primaries — the first set that are winner-take-all under RNC rules.
April 24: If the nominee is still uncertain after April 3, this will be akin to a Northeastern Super Tuesday, with delegate-rich New York and Pennsylvania headlining a primary day that also includes Connecticut, Delaware and Rhode Island.
June 5: California and New Jersey hold primaries. Only Utah, the last state to choose delegates, goes later, on June 26.