Shifting primary calendar starting to strain RNC, put its rules to the test

Republicans in a number of states are considering moving their presidential contests to before Feb. 5, 2008, setting up a standoff with a Republican National Committee (RNC) that is already faced with punishing historically early states Iowa and New Hampshire.

Nevada became the latest state threatening to break the Feb. 5 barrier when members of the state Republican Party’s executive committee moved last Friday to join Nevada Democrats by holding their caucus on Jan. 19.

Democrats have the blessing of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) to go before Feb. 5. But Republicans — whether in Nevada or any other state — do not, as far as the RNC is concerned. Iowa and New Hampshire are also technically in breach of this rule, which was adopted in 2000 but not enforced in 2004.

In the ongoing battle to get states to fall in line during the presidential nominating process, GOP operatives in the early states say the committee has neither the ability to prevent the power moves nor the will to hand out punishments at the national convention. The RNC says it will enforce the rules.

While the frontloading issue has been a focus for Democrats after their decision to grant Nevada special status, it now appears to be sneaking up on Republicans as well. Aside from Nevada, other states looking to move up their presidential contests before Feb. 5 include Wyoming, South Carolina and Florida.

“The stick that the national committee has doesn’t seem to work, given the political realities,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire RNC committeeman who is now a senior adviser to former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney. “The issue is, even if the rule’s enforced, would people pay the price in order to maintain New Hampshire’s position? The answer is yes.”

New Hampshire appears to be retaining its status as the first presidential primary in the nation. But when the Republican National Convention convenes in St. Paul in 2008, convention rules might leave the state with just a handful of delegates.

The rules, which are supposed to be automatic, require that states lose either half or 90 percent of their delegates, including their three RNC representatives, if they do not hew to the RNC primary schedule. If a state waits especially long before declaring its primary date, a small state like New Hampshire could be left with fewer than five delegates.

Operatives in those states, however, doubt that the rules will be enforced and scoff at the notion that lost delegates would cost them any influence in the process.

In discussing their move over the weekend, several Nevada Republicans stated outright that losing delegates at a largely symbolic convention would be a small price to pay.

But many are skeptical that it would even get to that point because, they say, the candidates won’t allow it.

“Every candidate will be asked: New Hampshire runs to the risk of a penalty because of when its primary is — will you pledge that if you’re the nominee, you will work to see that the entire New Hampshire delegation is seated?” said a New Hampshire Republican source. “My guess is they’re all going to say yes to that.”

RNC spokeswoman Tracey Schmitt said the rules will be enforced.

“It’s the prerogative of each state as to when they choose to hold their primary or caucus,” Schmitt said. “Our rules dictate that if states choose to hold it outside the stated window, they shall be penalized delegates.”

The RNC’s position is complicated by the fact that it cannot change its rules until the convention begins. The DNC, by contrast, may amend them whenever it convenes a majority of members.

The DNC did just that last year when it gave Nevada a caucus between what were the traditional spots of Iowa and New Hampshire in the pecking order. The RNC, meanwhile, is virtually helpless to do anything until the party’s 2008 nominee is already chosen.

Early-state observers say the party will want to unify voters at that point and will try to avoid a messy battle over primary positions when it should be looking forward to November 2008.

“The party doesn’t want to have any sort of dissension; these things are generally just papered over, everybody holds hands and plays polite with one another,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Andrew Smith.

The RNC rules were not enforced in 2004. But there was no similar dilemma that year, since there was an uncontested primary won by a sitting president.

Under RNC rules, if a rule is broken and the chairman — currently Sen. Mel Martinez (Fla.) — doesn’t act, any three members of the body’s rules committee can file a statement. The rules committee then votes, and if a majority finds there is a violation, the punishments go into effect.

Along with the overall loss of delegates, the state party chairman and RNC committeeman and committeewoman would be stricken from serving as delegates, and additional sanctions can be imposed. There is no appeals process.

Schmitt said she is not aware of any new efforts to put together a set of rules that would serve as a more powerful deterrent. Committee members will address the issue at the next convention, she said.

The RNC’s recent history is peppered with efforts to prevent frontloading.

In 1996, it decided to award states extra delegates for holding their contests later in the process, and the later they went, the more delegates they got.

In 1999, a commission led by former RNC Chairman Bill Brock crafted the “Delaware Plan,” which divided states into four groups according to population. These groups were to vote in four waves, from smallest states to biggest, with no exemption for Iowa or New Hampshire.

Delegates did not adopt those rules at the 2000 convention. The convention instead approved a precursor to the early-February cutoff that remains in effect.