Wednesday, March 4, 2015

March Presidential Primary Bill Divides Democrats But Passes Washington State Senate

Half of the 24 member Democratic caucus in the Washington state Senate joined unified majority Republicans in the upper chamber to pass SB 5978 on Tuesday, March 3. The bill would move the presidential primary in the Evergreen state from May to the second Tuesday in March.

The AP has an account of the vote here. FHQ would counter AP reporter Derrick Nunnally's assessment that the bill is intended to strengthen the presidential primary. The better way of describing the rationale behind the Washington secretary of state-backed move is one of enticement.

The reason Democrats in the state Senate were divided over SB 5978 was that the state Democratic Party has traditionally had little to do with the presidential primary election since its first run in the 1992 presidential election cycle. In fact, Washington Democrats have had less than little to do with the primary. They have used a caucuses/convention system to select and allocate delegates in each of the six cycles that the Washington presidential primary has existed.

Secretary of State Kim Wyman (R) and legislative Republicans appear to be unified in support of the earlier primary, but are trying to coax Democrats -- or enough Democrats -- to go along with them.

Part of the package of enticements is the earlier primary. A second Tuesday in March primary would hypothetically be early enough to provide voters in the state of Washington with a voice in the presidential nomination process. But the last primary in 2008 was in the middle of February. Both parties held caucuses a week and a half before that primary. Both national parties allowed February contests in 2008, but a February primary that year did not prove to be enough to bring Democrats into the process.

Mostly that was because the primary, though early, was essentially open to voters outside of the Democratic Party (because there is no party registration in Washington). And the Washington Democratic Party has preferred closed caucuses in which only Democrats were affecting the selection and allocation of delegates. To deal with that issue, SB 5978 also includes a provision that -- provided both state parties opt into the primary and decide to allocate at least some of their national convention delegates based on the results -- would require voters to declare which party's primary in which they intend to vote.

Is that enough to get Democrats in the legislature on board with the idea? Half of the Democratic caucus in the state Senate was open to the idea, but the state party seems to be leaning toward maintaining the caucuses system. The now-Senate-passed SB 5978 now moves to the Democratic-controlled state House for consideration. There is an identical bill already in the committee stage in the lower chamber, but there is now also a bill there to cancel the 2016 presidential primary altogether. The 2012 Washington primary was also canceled.

All this sets up an interesting possible impasse. If the Republican Senate prefers the March primary legislation and the Democratic House ends up pushing the primary cancelation, the default is the May primary that is already in the statutes. The state legislature may be unwilling to expend the $11.5 million on a May primary likely to be after the point at which both national parties have settled on nominees in 2016. The end game would appear to be that that eventuality -- the above hypothetical impasse -- would push the parties toward earlier caucuses dates, making the multimillion dollar expenditure much less likely.

All eyes will now be on the state House now. The early primary proposals and the possible cancelation of the primary are all on their doorstep now.

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