Tuesday, March 7, 2023

May Presidential Primary Bill Continues Its Quick Pass Through Idaho Legislature, but...

The Idaho legislation to consolidate the stand-alone March presidential primary with the primary elections for other offices in May emerged late last week from the Senate State Affairs Committee with a Do Pass recommendation. 

With just two dissenting votes, the panel passed off H 138 to the full state Senate for consideration on the floor. But that move followed quick passage through the state House and a committee hearing on the upper chamber side that heard far more testimony against the move to consolidate the presidential primary with later contests. And both the trade-offs involved in the discussion and the battle lines drawn offer an interesting mix of factors in a state long under unified Republican control.

Part of the equation is a classic tale in the journey that some bills take to move a presidential nominating contest around on the primary calendar. Bill sponsors (and Secretary of State Phil McGrane) in this case have touted the savings that eliminating the separate presidential primary will have once merged with the primaries for state and local office in late May. Indeed, the move would strike an estimated $2.7 million from the state budget. No one providing testimony offered much to counter that reality. 

Instead, the resistance came from the Idaho state Republican Party and to the supposed infringement on its right to free association under the first amendment. To boil the session down to its essence, it was a struggle between a state party's right to determine when to hold a nominating contest and the state's obligation to foot the bill for such an election. 

That happens across the country from time to time. But what is unique here is that this is a Republican-on-Republican dispute. A majority of Republican legislators are driving a change to a process that the state Republican Party opposes. The latter wants an earlier presidential primary that does not fall after the nomination has already been decided. That is the typical draw for the frontloading of presidential primaries and caucuses. 

But interestingly, Idaho is stuck in this weird vicious cycle where the lessons of the past are forgotten and bound to be re-learned on some level. To garner attention in the presidential nomination process, the state Republican Party abandoned the May primary in 2011 in favor of earlier (Super Tuesday) caucuses. That pushed the state government -- again, under Republican control -- to eliminate the presidential primary line from the May primary ballot altogether. And those moves had implications. First, the earlier caucuses actually brought 2012 Republican candidates into the Gem state to campaign. But the caucus process also proved arduous for the state party. Financing it was one thing, but finding the requisite manpower to pull it off was another. Often, there is no substitute for a state-run process, even if that means a later date. 

But it did not end up meaning a later date. In fact, ahead of the 2016 cycle, Idaho legislators revisited the idea of a presidential primary. And the legislature opted to set aside funds for a separate, earlier election a week after Super Tuesday. That expenditure was offset by the prospect of bringing in candidates again and bringing in any financial windfall that brought for Idaho businesses in the process. Only, that windfall never came. 2016 Republicans focused on delegate-rich Michigan instead. And not only did those gains not come in 2016, but the Idaho presidential primary was even less of a draw to Democrats in 2020 on a date crowded with other, more delegate-rich contests. 

And that is why proponents of H 138 are talking up the cost savings and the potential gain in turnout in the May primary. The irony, of course, is that those turnout gains may never be realized. The state Republican Party may be forced to abandon the potentially later presidential primary to hold earlier caucuses once again. And that, in turn, may put legislators in 2027 right back where they were in 2015: considering an earlier presidential primary for the upcoming cycle. And so it continues in Idaho.

A few other odds and ends from this hearing:
1. Former state senator and current Ada County Commission chair, Rod Beck noted in his testimony before the committee that the bill they are considering does not, in fact, do what proponents set out to do. It eliminates the separate presidential primary, but does not also build back the legal infrastructure that was in place before the presidential line was eliminated from the May primary ballot in 2012. This is something FHQ noted in the initial post on H 138. In other words, under the provisions of this bill, there will not be a presidential primary in March OR May. That is an additional nudge to the state party (or state parties) to move to caucuses for 2024.

2. As another in a long line of folks testifying on this bill noted, a late May primary also creates a logistical nightmare for the state party. The point was that a late May primary forces a caucus/convention process to select delegates into a very small window before a July national convention. That point was, perhaps, a bit exaggerated. After all, other states have begun the selection process before a late primary allocates slots to particular presidential candidates in the past. There would be ways to work around that in Idaho as well. However, that late May primary date would push Idaho much closer to the new 45 day buffer the RNC has put in place for 2024. States have to have completed their delegate allocation and selection processes before the end of May. So there is probably some wiggle room for Idaho under the scenario where the state conducts a late primary, but not a whole lot. 

3. Yet another person who offered testimony raised questions about the supposed impact a move to consolidate the primaries would have on turnout. Obviously, if the parties move to adopt a caucus procedure, then those effects will be minimal. But the point made was that Idaho has changed the process so often in the last decade plus that it is difficult to get a baseline to compare turnout to, a baseline that is not just some function of the quirks of any given presidential nomination cycle. 

More on the committee hearing in the state Senate here and here.

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