Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Presidential Primary Impasse Between Chambers in the North Carolina General Assembly

The looming standoff between the North Carolina state House and Senate over the scheduling of the 2016 presidential primary is not anything new. However, Adam Wollner at the National Journal does add some depth to the story. The main cog in the Senate machinery blocking any effort to more clearly define the date of the presidential primary (move it back into compliance with national party rules) in the Tar Heel state is Senator Bob Rucho (R-39th, Mecklenburg), and Wollner found no lack of people willing to come forward to voice their opinion on the Matthews Republican.

A sampling:
"Senator Rucho is kind of a legend here for being one of the most cantankerous and hard-to-get-along-with senators," said Nathan Babcock, the political director at the North Carolina Chamber of Commerce. "He's not a 'go along to get along' type person." 
"Others have told me behind the scenes, 'Hey, we're going to move it,'" one senior North Carolina Republican official said, referring to the state senators who support a February primary. "But Rucho's never cracked. He's always said we're not going to move it unless we get something out of it."
Fair enough.

A few additional thoughts:
Rucho mentions in Wollner's piece that the RNC created an arbitrary rule -- the super penalty -- after the North Carolina primary law was changed. However arbitrary that rule may or may not be, it was in place before the North Carolina presidential primary law was altered in 2013, anchoring the contest to South Carolina's. The late Bob Bennett, former chairman of the Ohio Republican Party, devised the more severe penalty -- often called the Bennett Rule in RNC circles -- and saw it passed with the rules package for 2016 at the Tampa convention in 2012. That clearly precedes the late addition of the presidential primary amendment to the 2013 omnibus elections bill that passed through the General Assembly in the waning moments of a special session. The potential run-in with the Bennett Rule/super penalty was something that FHQ raised immediately upon hearing that the North Carolina primary could change positions in July 2013.

So, there is a stand-off between the North Carolina House and Senate. So what? We know that. If reporters nationally or in North Carolina want to advance this story in a meaningful way here are some interesting questions to ask:
  1. The North Carolina law does not account for the fact that South Carolina Republicans and Democrats do not always or even often hold presidential primaries on the same date. In the event that there are separate dates for those primaries in the Palmetto state, to which primary is the North Carolina contest tethered? The North Carolina law provides no guidance. If the interpretation is that it has to follow the likely February 20 Republican primary in South Carolina, it is much more problematic than if it were to follow the February 27 Souther Carolina Democratic primary. The former would force the North Carolina primary into a non-compliant February 23 primary, triggering the super penalty. But the latter would mean the North Carolina presidential primary would fall on March 1, in compliance with the national party rules. If Rucho wants to maintain the status quo, this is probably the best argument to make: that there is nothing to worry about. 
  2. But let's assume this story continues down the same road, straight into a roadblock. Furthermore, let's assume the North Carolina General Assembly is unable to pass legislation -- either in the regular 2015 session or a special session later this year -- and the primary is non-compliant. Well, how willing is the North Carolina Republican Party to stand idly by and just take the super penalty? Would they like Missouri Republicans before them in 2011 be open to switching to caucuses within the permitted timeframe in order to avoid the penalty? 
Both of these are important questions to allow us to determine just how big a threat North Carolina is to the calendar.

...and itself.

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Mystery Politico said...

I still don't actually see North Carolina as a "threat to the calendar". The South Carolina GOP was going to put their primary on Feb. 20th anyway, right? And I assume that IA, NH, and NV were always going to schedule their contests in the weeks leading up to SC's Feb. 20th date. So North Carolina schedules their contest for the 23rd, three days after SC. That means that NC takes the super penalty, and pays a hefty penalty, but it doesn't actually have any impact on the scheduling of IA/NH/NV/SC, does it?

Josh Putnam said...

Thanks for raising this again. I got sidetracked last time and never got back around to responding.

A couple of things:
1) I'm probably guilty of using shorthand in this instance, where "calendar" equals calendar process (formation, final product and all). The threat that North Carolina represents is one of continued uncertainty.

2) Yes, I think South Carolina Republicans would like to schedule their primary for February 20, but won't make any firm decisions until this North Carolina situation is resolved. That is the source of the uncertainty. There may be a point where they say, "Hey North Carolina, you're on your own," and lock themselves in, leaving North Carolina to feel the full brunt of the super penalty. But that won't occur until probably October if it plays out that long on the North Carolina end of things.

Until such time, we don't really know. We don't know what South Carolina is likely to do. That's what makes North Carolina a threat. It isn't a Florida-type threat, but it is a threat.