by Lindsey Gill
With less than a year until the 2012 general election, Americans everywhere are gearing up for primary season. With Iowa, as usual, holding the coveted number one spot, the rest of the 50 states will hold their primaries or caucuses sometime between January and June. Because Missouri law mandates that the state hold a primary election on the first Tuesday after the first Monday in February, that sets the date for the 2012 primary as February 7th. With only a few states holding a primary or caucus earlier, Missouri’s primary has the possibility to be very influential in the Republican nomination… well, at least it would, if any of Missouri’s votes actually counted. Instead, the state is set to spend between 6 and 8 million dollars on what Senate Majority Leader Tom Dempsey called a “beauty contest.”
The reason? A rift in the Missouri Republican Party. Nearly a decade after legislators moved Missouri’s primary to February, the Republican and Democratic National Committees instituted new primary rules mandating that all states except Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada, hold their primary no earlier than the first Tuesday of March. The Missouri Republican Party immediately began pushing state legislators to change the date of the primary in order to accord with the new rules. Holding the largest Republican majority in state history, one would think that the state legislature would pass an amendment to the primary law with little opposition. Indeed, that appeared to be the case when the legislature passed SB 282 in May of 2011, including the presidential primary provision as one of its several changes to Missouri election law.
Governor Jay Nixon, however, agreeing with the presidential primary provision, vetoed the bill for other reasons. With the national party threatening to sanction any state that did not adhere to the new primary rules by seating only half their delegates, Missouri legislators tried again during special session, limiting HB 3 specifically to the issue of changing the primary date. After barreling through the House, the bill stalled in the Senate as the Republican majority could not decide whether to submit to the national party rules.
With no sign of life in the Senate, the Missouri Republican Party took matters into its own hands. On September 29th, just two days before primary selection dates were due to the national party, the Missouri GOP announced that they would no longer allocate delegates through a primary election, but instead would switch to a caucus system, and set the date as March 17th.
The Senate, having been unable to decide when to hold the primary, was now left deciding whether to hold a meaningless primary… and still, they could not decide. The heavily Republican-controlled Senate closed out the special session deadlocked with a vote of 16 to 16. With a comment directed to his Republican colleagues who voted to keep the primary, Republican Senator Kevin Engler said it best: “Don’t ever tell the public that we do good work over here, because this is bizarre.”
Trying to make the best out of an incomprehensible situation, Secretary of State Robin Carnahan urges presidential candidates to take the primary seriously. She also insists that the Missouri GOP should abide by the outcome of the February primary. “There is going to be a primary. The votes will count….The question is whether the parties are going to decide whether they want to reflect the will of the voters or not.” Even Missouri Republican Party Executive Director Lloyd Smith encourages voters to vote in the primary and make their views known, despite admitting that the result will not be binding.
It seems that Secretary Carnahan got her wish, at least with respect to the candidates. On November 2, 2011, Rick Perry, following other front-runners like Mitt Romney and Herman Cain, became the fifth Republican candidate to file for the Missouri primary. If nothing else, it appears that Missouri will have a well-contested beauty contest.
Lindsey Gill is a second-year law student at William & Mary.