Political Hay

Who’s On First?

Once again Washington Republicans are telling Florida Republicans what choices to make.

By 3.7.11

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TAMPA -- Considering the overall importance in 2012 of getting Barack Obama back to attempting to organize a community smaller than the United States, you'd think national Republicans would want to keep their eyes on this ball to the exclusion of all else. But, maybe not.

There's appears to be a counterproductive and pointless intramural squabble brewing between the Republican National Committee and one of the biggest and most important Republican states over who's on first.

The whole business is reminiscent of the National Republican Senatorial Committee's 2009 attempt to choose Florida's U.S. Senate candidate. After conservative Republican Marco Rubio announced for the office, the NRCS showered kisses and money all over liberal Florida governor Charlie Crist, then the Democrats' favorite Republican. Crist didn't even remain a Republican through to the election, which Rubio won by 20 points. Learning nothing from this sorry episode, the RNC now wishes to determine when Florida may have its presidential primary.

The Florida Legislature has set the date of the 2012 Florida Presidential primary at January 31. The RNC has taken the eccentric position that the heavens will fall if any state save the favored precincts of New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina, and Nevada let their presidential preferences be officially known before the first Tuesday in March. RNC Officials say this is so important they have agreed with the Democratic National Committee to penalize states who attempt to cut the line. The reaction of most Florida Republicans to this is, "Huh? Get outta town!"

It would take a wilier political analyst than I've ever encountered to figure out a way a Republican could win the White House in 2012 without Florida's 29 electoral votes (buffed up from an already hefty 27 before the 2010 census). Not only this, but Tampa will host the 2012 Republican convention, the principal purpose of which is to give the Republican presidential ticket a big national send-off.

So why is the RNC threatening to diss its convention hosts and help the media generate all manner of negative stories by threatening to penalize Florida convention delegates if Florida has its presidential primary earlier that the RNC considers seemly? The folks there don't really want to say.

So far the RNC has been doggedly taciturn on this subject. When I asked why it's so important that four small states that are hardly representative of the nation should be guaranteed spots at the top of the primary lineup, I received two and a half pages of the RNC rules on this subject in impenetrable lawyerese. RNC spokesman Kirsten Kukowski -- a pleasant young woman who's only saying what her bosses tell her to -- gave me press release language about "preserving tradition" and "the integrity of the process" so general, so uninformative, and so narcoleptic that not only did I know no more after hearing her, I purposely made sure not to drive or operate heavy equipment for the rest of the day. It's really tough defending the indefensible (whatever the RNC is paying Kirsten, it's not enough).

I told her I'd like to know how the integrity of the voting process is put off if Republicans in Tampa, Jacksonville, and Orlando have their presidential say before those in Las Vegas, Reno, and Winnemucca. I also pointed out that Nevada only joined the early-bird states in 2008, with South Carolina and Iowa not that much earlier. So the "tradition" the RNC is hamstringing Florida with is hardly a venerable one. But she would say no more.

I also asked Kirsten to be added to the queue to speak with RNC Chairman Reince Priebus on this matter. But she said she didn't like my chances of getting through to him, and in any case he wouldn't say any more on this subject than she just had. So there it is. In the presence of this kind of stonewalling I can only conclude that there is a very flimsy reason to go to the wall for the favored four, or, more likely, there's no reason, it's just a policy.

And it's a policy Florida Republicans don't fancy. Florida has always been great fundraising territory for national Republican candidates, but until 2008 when the Florida Legislature moved the presidential primary to January, and lost convention delegates for doing so, Florida Republicans could only say who they wished to carry their banner after a nominee had been pretty much settled on. They'd like to have a say in the process somewhere commensurate with the importance of the nation's fourth largest state (soon to be third), and a very representative one, which contains every national demographic. A candidate who can win in Florida can win nationally. What better testing ground?

It's too soon to say if this one will be quickly resolved or will fester into a target-rich environment for left-stream media stories and commentary. "How can we trust the Republicans to run the country -- they can't even run themselves."

Florida State Senate President Mike Haridopolos (R-Melbourne) told me Friday he's optimistic that Florida and the RNC can come to an understanding, but says "Florida should go earlier" than it has in the past. He says he's not opposed to the favored four voting before Florida, but does not want to be deeper into the process than fifth. "Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida are bellwether states," He said. "But Florida is the richest nugget of the three by far. So it makes sense for Florida to go earlier, for candidates to spend more of their time here. There should be no threats here either way. We're going to work with our friends in the party."

Katie Betta, a spokesman for Florida House Speaker Dean Canon (R-Winter Park), says Canon is "not bound to the current date," but "doesn't see the date moving much or at all." She says Canon is "not inclined to cast a vote that would make Florida less important in the primary process."

Other Republicans I talked with about this issue, many of whom didn't wish to be quoted by name, were less diplomatic. "It's our grass-roots Republicans who will be hurt the most" if Florida has to wait as long to vote as the RNC wants, a high-ranking Republican official said to me. "Why are we even having this issue?" a Republican political consultant asked. Another characterized the RNC position as "empty threats." The easily distilled message here is: "Florida is big, diverse, and important, and we're not going to wait our turn anymore."

Stay tuned. Most Republicans hope this issue will resolve like the morning dew well before the convention. Right now the most reasonable course would be for the RNC to accommodate a state Republicans must win in 2012 to recapture the White House. President Obama inserted himself early into Wisconsin's budget battle on the side of the unions, but backed out when he realized it wasn't good politics to stick his nose into state business. Is there reason to hope that the folks at the RNC are at least as politically nimble as our rookie President?

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About the Author

Larry Thornberry is a writer in Tampa.