RALEIGH — North Carolina Republican leaders have decided it’s time the state’s voters get near the front of the pack for good in choosing the next president.
But how North Carolina cut in line this summer for 2016 is riling up its close neighbor because the primary would bump up against South Carolina’s prized first-in-the-South designation, threatening its influence. The national parties could penalize the state, too.
The new elections overhaul law signed by Gov. Pat McCrory this month schedules North Carolina’s presidential preference primaries for all parties on the Tuesday immediately after South Carolina’s, which have been commonly held in January or February. North Carolina’s primaries traditionally have been held in early May, alongside the other state primary races.
Legislators supporting an earlier presidential primary date say it would give North Carolina a greater say picking Democratic and Republican nominees, in keeping with its growing influence as a presidential battleground state and the nation’s 10th largest by population.
North Carolina got a taste of the possible attention in 2008 when the Democratic primary between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton wasn’t yet settled when the North Carolina primary came around. Before that, North Carolina hadn’t mattered in choosing a nominee since 1988.
Candidates already are reaching North Carolina voters in border counties through TV ads targeting South Carolina voters, says Sen. Andrew Brock, R-Davie. An earlier primary could mean presidential hopefuls visiting North Carolina for months beforehand. Now visits before the fall campaign are rare.
“They’re already spending money in North Carolina on the campaign,” Brock said, adding now “I’d like the people of North Carolina to get to talk to the next president.”
Rules in place by both the Democratic National Committee and Republican National Committee punish state parties with fewer delegates at their national conventions if they move up the primary pecking order ahead of certain dates without permission. State parties in Florida and Michigan also saw candidate boycotts when officials there moved up their 2008 primaries.
Four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — get to start first for reasons of diversity or a history of going early.
“North Carolina has thrown a wrench in the process,” said Matt Moore, chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party. “I can promise you that if North Carolina encroaches in any way on South Carolina’s primary … we will absolutely seek the maximum penalty.”
National Democratic and Republican parties have cut in half the number of delegates at the convention for states that break the rules. Republicans have made it harsher — reducing a state’s total to just 12 delegates — if a state holds a primary before the last Tuesday in February. North Carolina had 55 GOP delegates in 2012.
The new law says North Carolina will conduct its presidential primary the Tuesday after the South Carolina presidential primary as long as South Carolina holds its primary before March 15.
RNC spokesman Ryan Mahoney said a committee was formed at last week’s summer party meetings in Boston to examine the entire presidential process for 2016. “Any speculation about the primary calendar or the potential penalties is premature,” he said Friday.
Moore said he expects the 2016 primary in his state will be in February again, possibly three days before North Carolina’s if North Carolina keeps its new law. But even South Carolina’s GOP lost half of its delegates last year when it moved up its own primary earlier to remain ahead of Florida, which attempted to leapfrog South Carolina.
North Carolina Democratic Party Chairman Randy Voller blasted the Republican-led legislature for the presidential primary change. “The Republicans saw an opportunity to silence our voice on the national stage at a time when they should be fighting to increase it,” he said.
State Rep. David Lewis, R-Harnett and a Republican National Committee member, said legislators next year could avoid potential problems by amending the law to set the state’s primary after March 1.
With the new law “we felt it was important to signal that we wanted North Carolina to be a more relevant player in the selection of the nominees,” Lewis said.
Brock said he’s not inclined to change the date to satisfy South Carolina’s concerns: “I would gladly exchange my position as a delegate in exchange for having more North Carolinians in the presidential process.”
Many House Republicans still don’t like the idea of having a separate presidential primary, which would cost local governments millions of dollars to carry out and could discourage voters from the May primary for other races. But they voted for it anyway because it was inserted by the Senate into the elections bill that also contained new voter ID requirements they wanted.
If North Carolina lawmakers aren’t able to agree to a different primary date, the state parties may step in and hold caucuses later in 2016 to avoid penalties, said Josh Putnam, a Davidson College professor who monitors closely presidential delegate politics on the “Frontloading HQ” blog.
Other states also are strategizing how to move up the primary ladder without falling.
“The goal is to be able to have more influence,” said Adam Newmark, an Appalachian State University political science professor, but “the problem is every state wants to be more influential.”