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Bob Sparks: Florida nears end of renegade primary era

Florida Republican legislators are waving the white flag. The fight seems to be over. Peace is at hand.

After two insurrections against Republican National Committee (RNC) mandates covering presidential primary dates, the Florida House and Senate are poised to make a wise decision to cease hostilities.

House Bill 7035 (and a companion Senate bill) opens the way for Florida Republicans to return to the good graces of their national party. When passed by the full Legislature and signed by the governor, Florida’s presidential primary election moves from January to March 15, 2016.

That’s significant because the date is the first day the state can conduct, if it chooses as expected, a primary with a winner-take-all prize for the victor. RNC rules require the awarding of convention delegates based upon the percentage of votes earned for any primaries held between March 1 and March 14. Primaries before March 1 are subject to penalties.

To be sure, frustration exists at the influence the early primary and caucus states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, and South Carolina — hold on the nominating process. Those states will always go first, though, unless large numbers of national committee members decide otherwise. Political guerrilla operations, such as passing a law to move ahead of those four states, are doomed to failure.

After Florida did just that in 2008, the other states simply moved their dates ahead, preserving their status. The Democratic National Committee joined the RNC by imposing sanctions on the Florida delegations to their respective national conventions. After threatening otherwise, all delegates were ultimately seated.

Four years later both legislative chambers had new leaders, but similar ideas about raising Florida’s influence in the nominating process. The RNC also had new leadership, but with even stronger ideas about rule enforcement.

Chairman Reince Priebus and Co-Chair Sharon Day of Fort Lauderdale made it clear penalties would be levied and enforced if any state messed with the primary calendar. One frank discussion on the matter at Tallahassee’s Governors Club between Day and some in legislative leadership stands out.

“Florida’s role in selecting the Republican nominee for president is just as important today as it was four and eight years ago,” Day said. “The rules are designed to have an orderly nominating process while being fair to everyone.”

Florida again flouted the rules and the RNC matched their threats with action. The Florida delegation was cut in half and despite the national convention being a home game in Tampa, the slimmer delegation was exiled to stay about 30 miles away from downtown.

“I’m pissed off,” then-Republican Party of Florida Chairman Lenny Curry said at the time. He was understandably perturbed that “our activists and our donors are going to be punished for something they had nothing to do with.”

Perhaps Florida had some influence in nominating John McCain in 2008. At the same time, Gov. Charlie Crist’s surprise endorsement of McCain just 72 hours before the primary played an equal or greater role.

It’s difficult to make the case that jumping in line was worth it for Florida in 2012. After Mitt Romney won the Florida primary on Jan. 31, 2012, the contest dragged on with former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum still winning primaries well into March.

Like it or not, four states carrying 24 total electoral votes (4.5 percent of the Electoral College total of 538) will effectively end the candidacies of some Republican hopefuls. But any serious contender will survive long enough to campaign in March for Florida’s delegates.

The bill has broad support which clearly reflects a desire by Democrats to avoid even the chance of penalties for them. A month ago the issue might have been moot, but if more revelations about Hillary Clinton keep surfacing in The New York Times (not Fox News), they might actually have a primary of their own in 2016.

“The House and Senate is about to take an important step toward creating an orderly primary process,” Day said. “I look forward to the Legislature passing, and Gov. Scott signing, the bill that will enable Florida to have full representation at next year’s convention in Cleveland.”

It appears the days of Florida being a primary scofflaw are nearing an end.

Bob Sparks is a business and political consultant based in Tallahassee. 

Written By

Bob Sparks is a former political consultant who previously served as spokesman for the Republican Party of Florida, Department of Environmental Protection and the Florida Attorney General. He was a senior adviser to former Gov. Charlie Crist. Before entering politics, he spent nearly two decades in professional baseball administration. He can be reached at rjsparks24@gmail.com and Twitter @BobSparksFL.

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Contributors & reporters: Phil Ammann, Renzo Downey, Rick Flagg, A.G. Gancarski, Joe Henderson, Janelle Irwin, Jacob Ogles, Scott Powers, Bob Sparks, Andrew Wilson.
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