Tuesday, May 29, 2018

[2017-18 State Legislative Review: Proposed Primary Movement] "Flamethrower" Presidential Primary Bill Gets Bogged Down in Texas

This post is part of a series examining efforts -- both attempted and successful -- to move presidential primary election dates for 2020 during the now-adjourning 2017-2018 state legislative sessions in capitols across the country. While shifts tend to be rare in sessions immediately following a presidential election, introduced legislation is more common albeit unsuccessful more often than not.

This is a fun one.

During the 2017 Texas state legislative session, Rep. Lyle Larson (R-122, San Antonio) once again introduced proactive legislation to move the presidential primary (and all others that are traditionally consolidated with it in the Lone Star state) to the fourth Tuesday in January. HB 3180 would have had the same effect as the legislation Larson authored in 2015. And it ended up in the same place: on the sidelines as the legislature wrapped up its business.

This is a fun one because the committee discussion around it neatly encapsulated the thinking of many frontloading era state legislators. That basically amounts to "Why do Iowa and New Hampshire get to have all the fun? Why can't we jump on that bandwagon too? Or have our turn in the first-in-the-nation spotlight?"

For years it was enough for states -- state legislators and state legislatures -- to move up and cluster their primaries and caucuses on the earliest date allowed by the national parties. There were exceptions -- the attempted Delaware incursion on New Hampshire's turf in 1996 comes to mind -- but the early states were able to maneuver around that threat and watched most states file in behind them, clustered on the first Tuesday in either February or March (depending on the cycle and the rules).

That changed in the 2008 cycle when Florida and Michigan, two larger states, pushed their presidential primaries into January and forced Iowa and New Hampshire to the cusp of 2007 contests.    The January 15 position Michigan carved out for its primary left just enough space on the calendar to fit New Hampshire in a week before on January 8. However, Iowa had to violate its own eight day buffer and settle for a January 3 date to avoid pushing into 2007 (and the end of year holiday season). In other words, the early states got pressure from both ends: Florida and Michigan on the back end and the new year on the front side.

But a prospective Texas move to the end of January would be different (in isolation) from the provocative maneuvering of Florida and Michigan of 2008. Such a move would not -- as Larson suggested during the public committee hearing for HB 3180 -- be the opening move in a negotiation that would lead to Texas being the first primary. Rather, an end of January Texas primary would lead to much the same result as 2008. It would leave enough space in 2020 to fit the four carve-out states in with a squeeze similar to 2008 between Iowa and New Hampshire.

Of course, the national party rules have change since then to avoid just this sort of scenario. Importantly, the Republican Party added a super penalty to curb timing violations like the one Larson raised in this legislation; one that would penalize a January Texas primary by reducing the Republican delegation from the Lone Star state by over 90 percent. That complication was something voiced by Eric Opeila of the Republican Party of Texas when spoke against Larson's bill in the public hearing.

In fact, as was the case with Larson's 2015 version of the same bill, all those who rose to speak on the bill spoke against it. While all of the witnesses continued to voice opposition to the 2017 bill moving the primary to January, unlike 2015, they all universally offered sympathy for the cause: disrupting the early primary calendar.

Despite the unanimous opposition from those who spoke -- from both major state parties and election administrators -- in the public hearing, HB 3180 was unanimously passed by the House Elections Committee with a "do pass" recommendation. In fact, when it was re-introduced for that committee vote, Larson's bill was called "the flamethrower" before the committee chair said, "Let's send a message." That was a departure from the 2015 bill which was ultimately bottled up in committee where it died. The 2017 version met the same fate, but not before advancing from committee to the calendar for floor consideration (where it died).

That marks an incremental change from 2015, the end point of which would likely be replicated in 2019 should another version of this January Texas primary bill be introduced. And in the end, the benefits are clearly outweighed by the costs; in penalties and position. Texas would move up only to see the carve-out states shift up and past it leaving the Texas primary penalized and still in the fifth position it currently shares with other states on Super Tuesday.

The Texas bill has been added to the FHQ 2020 presidential primary calendar.

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