State faces penalty unless it moves back presidential primary

Democrats and Republicans are declaring an end to the push for ever-earlier presidential primaries, which sent Connecticut voters to the polls before Valentine’s Day in 2008–and ended Chris Dodd’s candidacy two days after New Year’s Day.

With a mix of incentives and penalties, the parties are trying to ensure that all but a handful of caucuses and primaries are held between March 6 and June 12, requiring the legislature to move Connecticut’s primary back at least by one month.

Neither party gave the legislature’s Government Administration and Elections Committee any guidance Friday at a public hearing on a bill to set a new primary date.

“They need to weigh in,” Secretary of the State Denise Merrill said.

Since the Democrats have a presumptive nominee in President Obama, the Republicans have a greater stake at trying to settle on a date that might keep the state relevant to the battle for delegates in 2012.

Two years ago, frustrated by previous late primary that attracted few candidates to the state, Connecticut joined the rush closer to the front of the line, holding its primary on Feb. 5, the same day as Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey and about 20 other states.

The Iowa caucuses were held Jan. 3, leading to jokes that it was only a matter of time before one state decided to select its presidential delegates in the calendar year prior to a presidential election. Intent on retaining its status as the state with the first primary, New Hampshire chose its delegates Jan. 8.

In 1968, the presidential primary season extended into June, when the California primary was a late prize.

The parties cannot force states push their primaries later, but they can penalize them if they don’t and reward them if they do.

A one-page memo recently sent by the Democratic National Committee to Merrill informed her that Connecticut will lose half its seats to the next convention if its primary falls outside the approved window of March 6 to June 12.

If the state delays its primary until April, it will be rewarded with a 10 percent bonus in the number of delegates. Wait until May 1, the bonus doubles to 20 percent.

And if the state can manage to convince two neighboring states to agree on a regional primary date on or after March 20, it will receive an additional bonus of 15 percent.

Merrill said it is up to party officials to strike such an agreement, which Republican State Chairman Chris Healy likened Friday to “herding cats.”

Republicans are offering a different incentive: any primary held on after April 1 will be winner take all, making the state a much more attractive prize for a presidential candidate, especially if it is a small state like Connecticut.

A primary before April 2 will mean that state’s delegates will be awarded on a proportional basis.

Iowa moved its caucuses, which ended Dodd’s presidential campaign, up to Jan. 3 in 2008 after other states threatened its first-in-the-nation status.

The new incentives and penalties by the Democrats and Republicans have not exactly ended primary one upmanship.

Iowa is now scheduled to hold its caucuses on Feb. 6, but the state’s leadership vows to move up the contest if Florida sticks with its present primary date on Jan. 31. The New Hampshire primary is scheduled for Feb. 14.

“It’s all about being relevant,” Merrill said.

Every state wants its primary to occur when the nomination still is up for grabs, she said. Connecticut often has been ignored by candidates, except for fundraising.

Connecticut’s earlier primary two years ago paid off with rallies by Republican John McCain and Democrats Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Obama headlined one of the biggest rallies in recent election cycles, filling the 17,000-seat XL Center in downtown Hartford, appearing on stage with Ted Kennedy. Obama won in Connecticut, an important Northeast victory on a night when he lost Kennedy’s home state of Massachusetts.