RNC Chairman Priebus faces leadership test with primary calendar shuffle

Republican National Committee Chairman Reince Priebus is facing one of the biggest challenges of his tenure — juggling the party’s presidential primary calendar.

Priebus, who took over the cash-strapped committee at the beginning of the year, has managed to put a serious dent in its debt. But now he has to balance states that want an influential position in the nomination process with the traditional early voting states that want to retain their role in determining the GOP presidential nominee.

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The party chief is trying hard to avoid a replay of the 2008 elections, when states flocking to be early — and therefore more influential — in the nomination process ended up leap-frogging one another until the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary took place in early January, forcing the campaigns to stay on the ground through Christmas and New Year’s.

Earlier this year, the RNC asked all states but the four early voting ones not to hold their contests before March 6 — and threatened to remove half of the convention delegates for those that don’t comply.

But Florida officials Wednesday indicated that they will move their primary date to Jan. 31, which would prompt Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina to move their dates to early or mid-January to keep their leading spots in the nomination calendar.

This comes on the heels of Michigan and Arizona moving their contests to Feb. 28 in an attempt to get a heads-up on the March 6 Super Tuesday primaries.

And Missouri, Alaska, Georgia and North Dakota have all made noise about moving up their dates, which could wreak additional havoc on the calendar.

It will all come to a head Saturday — the day state officials must submit their 2012 primary and caucus dates to the RNC.

After that, Priebus and his staff face the delicate task of puzzling it all out — either getting some of those states to change their dates, deciding on a punishment for those that don’t, or reconfiguring the rule about allowing no other primaries before March 6. The situation with Florida is particularly complicated given that the party’s national convention will be in Tampa next August.

Saul Anuzis, a Michigan RNC committeeman who sits on the RNC’s primary date compliance committee, said he expects Florida to move up its primary and trigger a repeat of last election, when it lost half its voting delegates.

“It appears both on the timetable and on the convention process that 2008 is replaying itself,” Anuzis said.

Meanwhile, RNC spokeswoman Kirsten Kukowski emphasized that Florida has not made any decisions yet, but promised that the committee will stick with enforcing its rules.

“We’re going to continue working with Florida and other states to make sure they’re in compliance with the rules, and any state that isn’t will lose half its delegates,” she said. “The rules are the rules — if you want to jump that’s fine, but that’s at your own risk.”

Anuzis said the situation is a touchy one for all parties involved.

“Florida wants to be an early player, they want to have an influence — and the challenge is they’re the host state [for the convention]. Here you have the host state violating the rules, which is an uncomfortable situation for them to be in, and for us too, absolutely,” he said. “We’re trying to accommodate everybody because you don’t want donors in Florida, Arizona or even Michigan being upset because some arbitrary rule puts them in a difficult voting situation.”

Justin Sayfie, a prominent Florida Republican strategist with close ties to former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush (R), said if the RNC stripped half of Florida’s delegates at a convention it was hosting it would be a seen as a “slap in the face to the Republican leadership in the state of Florida.”

“They can choose to do so and it’s their right to do that, but it could have negative electoral consequences for our candidates because of Florida’s must-win status in the presidential election,” he said.

Sayfie praised Priebus’s work so far, but warned that the hardest part is yet to come.

“I think he’s handled it the way he should handle it, has done exactly what he should be doing — all you can do is set the rules out there to have an orderly primary process, and the states are going to make their own decisions knowing up front what the rules are,” he said.

If the GOP nomination process wraps up early and there is a clear nominee, Priebus will be able to avoid having to make any hard decisions, as Florida’s loss of delegates won’t have any effect on who the eventual nominee is.

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Anuzis predicted — under that scenario — that the 2008 situation could be a model, wherein a state officially loses half its delegates but is still seated in a nonvoting role on the convention floor.

But if it’s a close nomination process — and especially if the nomination fight winds up as a delegate battle on the convention floor, which hasn’t been seen in recent history — the fight could get ugly.

“Where it’s going to get a little bit more delicate is after we know who the nominee is, and especially if it ends up being a close nomination contest all the way to the end,” Sayfie said. “If it comes down to a handful of delegates deciding who gets the nomination, it gets very interesting.”

As for the GOP presidential candidates, thus far they have stayed out of the fracas, but they could get involved if a state one of them wins is threatened with losing delegates.

Here’s what the nomination calendar could look like:
Iowa caucusesfirst or second week of January
New Hampshire primary a few days after Iowa
Nevada caucusesa week after New Hampshire
South Carolina primaryshortly after Nevada’s contest
Florida primaryJan. 31
Colorado, Minnesota, MaineFeb. 7 (non-binding preference polls, no delegate penalties)
MissouriFeb. 7 (tentative)
Arizona and MichiganFeb. 28
Idaho, Massachusetts, Ohio, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia (Super Tuesday)March 6
NOTE: Alaska, Georgia and North Dakota might move their primary dates, and those contests could take place at some point during this time frame.