Next year it will have been 40 years since North Carolina Republicans made history by saving the political career of California Gov. Ronald Reagan.
Reagan’s upset over President Gerald Ford – the first time in American annals that a sitting president had been defeated in a primary – changed the trajectory of Reagan’s path, reviving his prospects in 1976 and allowing him to win the presidency four years later.
It was one of those pivot points in history. Without Reagan would we have had the two Bush presidencies?
But no North Carolina Republican presidential primary has been consequential since then, mainly because Tar Heel primaries have been usually held in May, long after the nomination fight has been settled.
In an effort to make the presidential primaries relevant again, the state legislature voted to move the 2016 presidential primary to February, and the move has created a flap in national and state GOP circles.
The legislature, as part of a package of election law changes that included the requirement for voters to show a photo ID, moved the Republican primaries to the first Tuesday after the South Carolina primary, likely putting it in late February. (No dates have been set yet, but a likely scenario puts South Carolina’s primary on Saturday, Feb. 20, and North Carolina’s on Tuesday, Feb. 23.)
But the Republican National Committee has been trying to restore order to a primary process that has seen states pushing to hold primaries and caucuses earlier each election cycle to be among the first. The RNC has guaranteed February for only four traditional states – Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina. Violation of the RNC rules could cost North Carolina all but 12 of its 72 delegates to the national convention in Cleveland.
“North Carolina is the biggest threat to the calendar now, because there is uncertainty around the primary here that does not exist elsewhere,” wrote Josh Putnam, a professor at Appalachian State University, on his website “Frontloading HQ,” which closely follows the presidential primary system.
There is a debate within North Carolina Republican Party circles on whether to stick with the February date (tied to state law) or to move it back to March 1, which would comply with party rules.
Among those who are pushing to move it back are state GOP Chairman Claude Pope Jr. and state Rep. David Lewis of Dunn, a member of the Republican National Committee, who is chairman of the state House Elections Committee.
Pope said the presidential candidates won’t bother campaigning in North Carolina for just 12 delegates. (South Carolina could also choose to blackball candidates who campaign in North Carolina, thereby pressuring candidates to skip this state.)
“Our legislature has good intentions when it established a February primary date, assuming that the world would beat a path to our door – bringing national media exposure, money and an economic boom-let to North Carolina,” Pope said in a statement last week. “But the crowded field of presidential wannabes will not step foot in our state. They will not visit the fire stations or Rotary Clubs. They won’t ride in the parades, eat barbecue, kiss babies or spend their millions fighting over just 12 delegates – it simply isn’t worth the money.”
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has been reaching out to Gov. Pat McCrory and Sens. Thom Tillis and Richard Burr to urge support of the RNC rules, according to CNN.
There may be a bit of a House-Senate divide on the issue. Among the strongest supporters of keeping the February date are state Sens. Bob Rucho of Mecklenburg County and Andrew Brock of Mocksville, a longtime backer of early primaries.
They argue that it makes sense for the two Carolinas to hold the primaries within days of each other, because they share media markets in places such as Charlotte, Asheville and Wilmington.
They also don’t like the March 1 date, because it would take the spotlight off the Tar Heel State. North Carolina would hold its primary on the same day as such states as Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, essentially creating a regional Southern primary. North Carolina would be just one of many stops along the campaign trail.
The change in primary dates would also move up North Carolina’s Democratic primary. The Democrats would likely apply for a waiver from the Democratic National Committee to avoid losing delegates, because they have no control over the actions of a Republican-controlled legislature.
North Carolina Democrats have not had any Reagan-like moments with their primaries. But in their May primary in 2008, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama all but ended the fading hopes of New York Sen. Hillary Clinton. She should do better next year if she decides to run.
In the law of unintended consequences, the GOP-backed early primary effort may end up aiding a Clinton primary race, while penalizing North Carolina Republicans at the national convention.
Christensen: 919-829-4532 or firstname.lastname@example.org