Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Strange Things Are Afoot in the Missouri Senate Concerning the Presidential Primary

***Please also see the footnote FHQ has added to the Missouri presidential primary situation.

In the Missouri Senate today, the chamber took up HB 3, the bill to move the Show Me state presidential primary from the first Tuesday after the first Monday in February to the first Tuesday after the first Monday in March. Instead of considering and passing the measure to bring the state's primary back into compliance with the national party rules quickly, as the House had done last week, the process appears to have hit a snag in the state Senate -- a snag that will not be rectified until at least next Wednesday (September 21) when the Senate reconvenes.

At issue is proposed amendment to eliminate the separate presidential primary election -- saving the state $6 million -- and reverting to caucuses as a means of allocating delegates as was the custom in the state prior to 1988 (and again in both 1992 and 1996). The amendment would also call on the Missouri caucuses to be held on February 7 (something that is rarely covered by state law elsewhere across the country).

But this is where the wheels fell off of the wagon. The legislators carrying on the conversation on the floor of the now-adjourned Senate session this afternoon showed a fundamental lack of understanding about how the presidential primary process works.1 Senator Jason Crowell (R-27th, Bollinger) demonstrated the very real disconnect that can exist in this presidential nomination process between the state legislature/state government and both the state party and particularly the national party.

[Forgive me for paraphrasing what I just overheard and attempted to transcribe from the online audio of the session this afternoon, but these do adequately point out the aforementioned disconnect.]

Sen. Crowell brought up things like:
I've never heard from anyone from the national party who asked us to move to March.
Why should the national party tell us how to run our primary?
This is nothing more than the national party trying to rig the system to pick the nominees they want.
Then there was this exchange between the bill's Senate handler, Kevin Engler (R-3rd, Farmington) and Sen. Crowell [These are direct quotes.]:
Engler: "Will the [national] party strip us of our delegates?" 
Crowell: "I don't care. I don't care."
There are so many things to discuss here that FHQ really doesn't know where to start. I'll quickly dispense with the fundamentals of this and then talk briefly about the implications moving forward.

First of all, there is an overlap on this issue in terms of the national party attempting to nominate presidential candidates and the fact that states have chosen, on the whole, to complete their end of the process through state-funded presidential primaries. Initially, why that came be was a matter of state-level convenience in the 1970s after the McGovern-Fraser commission reformed the Democratic process (and ultimately the Republican process, too). States moved to primaries as a means of fulfilling the desires of the new national party rules. It was easier to put an extra presidential primary line on the ballot of a pre-existing primary for state and local offices in some cases than it was for state parties to hold caucuses on their own dime. That overlap, though, has blurred the line between state action and national/state party function over time. The nomination process is party business, but that is a machine that happens to include a state mandated cog, the primary election. That connection only lasts as long as is convenient for the national and state parties.

And in this case, it is clear that at least some Republicans within the Missouri legislature have grown tired of the mandates from the national party. The interesting thing is that there was no discussion of how Republican legislative action in the Missouri General Assembly would affect the Missouri Republican Party's ability to allocated delegates to the national convention. There was absolutely no discussion of this. FHQ isn't clear if the senators talking to fill in the time while the amendment was being written are even considering this. There are implications for the state parties. The parties will have to pick up the tab for the caucuses in the event that the primary funding is eliminated. It isn't clear to me that the state parties have even been consulted on this matter. And the parties could very well take the issue to court if the legislature attempts to regulate when the caucuses could be held. That is party business and the courts have continually shown that they will side with parties over states on these issues. [Imagine a court battle to determine when the Missouri primary or caucuses will be held and the impact that would have on the finalization of the calendar. Look no further than the court battle over the Michigan primary in 2008.]

Again, I don't want to get to far into that sort of speculation. The more you look into it, the messier it gets. The very real impact that this has is that suddenly the Missouri primary scheduling is now in doubt. The roadblocks that are apparent in the Senate raise the specter of a February 7 primary or caucus which would obviously bring with it near-Arizona-style panic about the state of the final calendar.

What, then, are we left with? The amendment, if passed, could derail the process in any number of ways. It could make the overall bill unpalatable to first the entire Senate (unlikely since the whole chamber would have to have voted for the amendment's inclusion in the first place), the House or the governor. If the amended bill passes the Senate, the House could reject it. Conversely, the House could accept the changes -- signing on to the caucus scenario based on the savings -- and send the bill on to the governor. Governor Nixon would then face two options: Veto the legislation that would save the state $6 million and in the process keep the primary on its non-compliant date, or sign it, wash his hands of the matter and let the Missouri Republicans take the brunt of the heat for holding or attempting to hold a non-compliant caucus (something that would cost the state party half its delegation to the Tampa convention). But the question remains on that latter option of whether the Missouri Republican Party would be on board with the change; particularly if it entails the state government mandating when the caucuses -- party business, mind you -- can be held.

What would stop the state party from moving the caucuses where they want? Nothing would. But there could potentially be a fight over that between the state party and the state government. Of course, the state government would be unlikely to bring a suit to court considering the attorney general is a Democrat.

This Missouri situation just got ugly and we won't begin to have any answers on the matter until next Wednesday; a scant ten days before the RNC requires states to have notified the party of their delegate selection plans.

...but that isn't anything that would upset the members of the Missouri Senate's majority.

1 Mostly, this was Senator Crowell, but it mirrors to some extent the actions of Sen. Brad Lager, who had previously offered an amendment to the regular session presidential primary bill to anchor the Missouri primary to one week after the New Hampshire primary. The amendment was accepted on that bill (SB 282) and ultimately passed by the Senate and then re-modified back in the House. That version, including a provision to move the primary to March was agreed to by both chambers and then vetoed by the Governor Jay Nixon (D) due to other provisions in the bill.

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Anonymous said...

"States moved to primaries as a means of fulfilling the desires of the new national party rules requiring less."

Is there a word missing at the end of that sentence? If the party rules had fewer requirements than they had before, then the states wouldn't need to change to primaries to fulfill the parties' desires.

astrojob said...

Any comment on this story?:

It says that the Michigan senate is going to vote on a proposal to keep the primary on Feb. 28. The primary is already on Feb. 28, so why would new legislation be needed?

Josh Putnam said...

That was a typo. I was going to make the point that the reforms decentralized the nomination decision, creating less direct elite involvement in the process.

I saw that story two days ago and I'm still trying to figure out why legislation is necessary. Nothing new has been proposed. That, I can say. I would have addressed this in an updated "primer" for all the states yesterday, but the Missouri story intervened. I may be able to get that up later this afternoon. But no, I don't see the necessity in new legislation. That hasn't been made clear to me yet, at least.