Tuesday, January 17, 2023

West Virginia Bill Would Move Presidential Primary to February

In every presidential nomination cycle there comes a first; a first state legislative bill to potentially challenge the national party rules. 

And in 2023, that is West Virginia bill SB 218. Sen. Mike Oliveria (R-13th, Monongalia) introduced the legislation late last week to establish a separate presidential primary election in the Mountain state and schedule it for the second Tuesday in February. Typically, the West Virginia presidential primary has been held concurrent with primaries for state and local offices on the second Tuesday in May, and for that latter group of primaries, they still would be. But under this legislation, the presidential primary would be split off from the rest and shifted to a point three months earlier. 

Clearly that is a move that would come with some costs. To this point, there is no fiscal statement accompanying the legislation, but it would add the operating costs for a separate election to the state budget. Now, that may be offset to some extent by the potential candidate and media attention an earlier primary might bring to West Virginia. That is a spot on the 2024 presidential primary calendar that is smack-dab in the middle of the pre-window period. Only the Georgia primary would be on February 13 to compete, but that is only if national Democrats can figure out a way to get it there

Granted, that is where the catch in all of this comes into play. While there may be financial costs to the move (and potential offsets), the fact remains that the biggest cost may be the penalties associated with pushing an unsanctioned primary into the early, reserved area of the calendar. On the Republican side, West Virginia Republicans would see their national convention delegation reduced to just nine delegates. Democrats would strip the state's Democratic delegation of half its delegates at the least and all of the delegates won for any candidates who campaign there. 

Those are not lax penalties. Yet, one can make sense of the move. For starters, that is an area of the calendar that may be able to be exploited. Unless Nevada Republicans opt out of the newly established presidential primary scheduled for February 6 and go later, then the period after February 6 and before Super Tuesday on the first Tuesday in March is wide open on the Republican presidential primary calendar. Candidates may find it hard to resist the opportunity, even with only nine delegates on the line. 

And perhaps the Republican delegate penalty is not that severe. As a state with likely just over 30 delegates for 2024, West Virginia is on the low end of the super penalty scale, losing roughly three of every five delegates in their national convention delegation. A 60 percent penalty may be a bitter pill to swallow for Republicans in a ruby red state, but one Republicans in the state may be able to stomach. West Virginia is not like, say, Michigan, where a timing violation would subject the state's Republicans to a nearly 80 percent reduction. 

Keep in mind also that there are no candidate penalties on the Republican side. The potential for a win that early on in the calendar when there may be no other events around may be enough to lure a gaggle of candidates into the state to discuss West Virginia-specific issues. It is a gamble, but one that should not be readily dismissed.

Historically, West Virginia has held down that second Tuesday in May date for its presidential primary. It only strayed from that point twice, holding June primaries in both 1980 and 1984. Mountain state Republicans partially opted out of the 2008 presidential primary, allocating 18 at-large delegates during a Super Tuesday convention. Only the remaining 12 congressional district delegates were directly elected on the May primary ballot. There was also an effort to repeat the 2008 convention strategy in 2012, but it went nowhere. A short-lived push to move the West Virginia primary to Super Tuesday in 2011 met a similar fate.

Whether this current effort follows a similar path remains to be seen. But West Virginia may be able to thread the needle better on this than some larger states could. That is not nothing.

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