As states jockey for position in the 2016 presidential nominating calendar, some are moving not only to increase their own clout, but to provide a timely boost to a favorite son.
In recent months, state lawmakers and party officials in Ohio, Arkansas, Florida, and Kentucky have taken action to change either the rules or the date of their nominating contests in ways that play right into a local presidential hopeful's hands. Moving a primary date by a week or two may seem relatively minor a full nine months from the first contest. But in a wide-open Republican presidential race that features 16 or more candidates and likely will stretch well beyond the traditional early-voting states in February, even the slightest of tweaks could provide a candidate with an edge in delegates, momentum, or both next spring.
"In a race like this, every single factor matters. No one is going to put this thing away easily," said Republican strategist Ed Rollins, a veteran of several presidential campaigns. "With this many candidates and the prospect of super PACs and billionaires coming in and funding these things, it could be a long, drawn-out process. So any advantage you can get is important."
Ohio and Arkansas moved to reschedule their primaries last week.
Legislators in Gov. John Kasich's home state voted to move the Ohio primary contest back one week, from March 8 to March 15, a change that could benefit Kasich if he's in the presidential race. That one-week shift allows Ohio to award its 66 projected delegates to the primary winner, instead of dividing them up among the top finishers. According to Republican National Committee rules, states with primaries before mid-March have to divide their delegates proportionally.
"I think that certainly back home in Ohio, folks that have known John Kasich for many years will do what they can to be supportive," said Franklin County Republican Party chairman Doug Preisse, a longtime Kasich supporter who recently traveled with the governor as he visited Georgia and South Carolina. "And if that means taking a look at the primary schedule and trying to best position Ohio in that array to support the hometown hero, I think our legislature is responsive to that."
Kasich's team and lawmakers in Ohio insist that the governor had no involvement with the legislation. Still, Kasich is expected to sign the bill soon.
Meanwhile, Arkansas lawmakers recently passed legislation to bump the state's primary up from May to March 1, the earliest day the RNC permits states not named Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada to hold their nominating contests. Arkansas, home of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, will now officially join a handful of other states for a coordinated "SEC" primary—named after the Southeastern Conference college sports league—on that day, aimed at giving the region greater sway in the 2016 election. (Unlike Ohio, Arkansas and its counterparts will have to allocate their delegates to candidates proportionally.)
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who supports Huckabee's presidential bid, approved the bill Friday. The South has been friendly territory for Huckabee, so his team views the burgeoning regional primary as an important part of his potential path to the GOP nomination.
"We know it's not just a matter of winning one or two states right off the bat; it's a long process of winning states and piling up delegates," Huckabee adviser Alice Stewart told National Journal last month. "And there's definitely a game plan for winning those SEC states where he's popular and where his views are reflective of the people there."
Florida, a state four GOP presidential hopefuls once called home, is typically near the front of the primary calendar, but in March, Gov. Rick Scott signed a measure moving the state's primary from March 1 to March 15. That made Florida a winner-take-all state in 2016, giving Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio prime opportunities to pick up 99 delegates in one home-state primary win.
That prospect already has some of Bush and Rubio's potential Republican rivals considering whether they should even bother competing in the state. Last Tuesday, Scott Walker told radio host Laura Ingraham, "I don't think there's a state out there we wouldn't play in, other than maybe Florida, where Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio are." Later in the week, Walker walked those comments back in an appearance on Fox Business, saying he's "not conceding anywhere."
In Kentucky, meanwhile, Republicans seeking to aid home-state Sen. Rand Paul want to ditch their primary entirely. The state GOP granted preliminary approval in March to instead hold a caucus in 2016, which would allow Paul (who also is running for reelection to the Senate) to get around a state law that forbids candidates from appearing on the ballot for two offices simultaneously. Party leaders are expected to formally make the change, for which Paul lobbied heavily, in August.
This isn't the first year states have changed the presidential primary playing field. In 2008, Illinois lawmakers moved their primary to boost then-Sen. Barack Obama. Arkansas made a similar move, allowing Huckabee and Hillary Clinton, the former first lady of Arkansas, to notch early victories. This year, as numerous Republicans—but no clear frontrunner—eye the presidency, the primary-date games are particularly elaborate.
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Adam Wollner is an analyst for National Journal Hotline. Previously, he covered politics as an intern for NPR and the Center for Public Integrity. A native Wisconsinite, Wollner graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2013 with a bachelor degree in journalism and political science.