Yesterday, a couple of bills were introduced in the Virginia House to move the state's presidential primary from the second Tuesday in February to the first Tuesday in March for the 2012 cycle. I wanted to take a few moments to step back and look at them a bit more closely. Now, neither one is all that substantively different from the other -- other than the fact that Rep. McClellan's version proposes lowering the petition signature requirement for candidates by 50% and Rep. Cole's does not -- but their are a handful of implications that are attendant to the introduction and/or passage of either of these bills.
1. Goodbye Potomac Primary? The week following Super Tuesday in 2008, there were three Tuesday contests: Maryland, Virginia and Washington DC. This regional or subregional primary was not all that consequential in the scope of the overall race -- Obama and McCain swept all three -- but they did start a string of consecutive victories in February for Senator Obama and inched McCain closer to the Republican nomination. Collectively, however, the three, regionally clustered contests commanded all of the campaign media's attention after Super Tuesday and the idea of the candidates devoting their energies to the issues and people of a region or subregion was looked upon favorably by some within the national parties. The Democratic Change Commission actually built the notion in their rules recommendation. Yet, the legislative action in Virginia -- temporarily at least -- breaks up that grouping of contests if it passes the legislature and is signed into law by Governor McDonnell. The question isn't whether that is a good thing or a bad thing, rather is one concerning whether Maryland and Washington DC follow suit. Maryland's legislature convened on January 12 as well, but as of yet there is no bill that has been introduced to shift the date on which the Old Line state's presidential primary will be held.
2. Rules Compliance. These bills, if passed and signed into law, would bring the state into compliance with both sets of national party rules on delegate selection event timing. Any contest scheduled on or after the first Tuesday in March complies. Virginia is one of eighteen states that currently had an election law on the books that calls for a February (or earlier) primary in violation of national party rules.
3. Democrats and Republicans. FHQ discussed this previously, but significance of divided government on frontloading (and it should be noted that this bill proposes moving the bill backward not forward) should be mentioned. Not only are we more likely to see movement in states with unified control of the state government, but election years with no incumbent running for reelection are more likely to see movement as well. Virginia has neither working in its favor. The legislature is divided -- Democrats control the Senate and Republicans have a majority in the House -- and President Obama is running for reelection. That said, the fact that one of these bills was sponsored by a Democrat and the other by a Republican speaks to at least some potential for consensus on this issue. Again, it is a bill to move the primary back, not forward, so the dynamics are not necessarily the same. As we said in the earlier post, the expectation is that Democratic-controlled state governments would be more likely to move back and into compliance with the DNC delegate selection rules, while Republican-controlled state governments face the dilemma of moving back in accordance with the RNC rules but losing potential influence over the nomination in the process. With at least one Virginia Republican, following the rules trumps influence. That may not be the case in other states.
4. Democrats and Republicans, Part II. Two different bills, two different sponsors, two different parties. Which one will move forward (or will one move forward)? If one of these versions is to move forward and if partisanship plays a role, Rep. Cole's (R) version is likely to find more support among the Republican majority in the Virginia House.
As the legislative session in Virginia progresses, these are some things to keep an eye on when either of these bills are being considered.