Politics 2003Week of March 24

Belt-Tightening Spurs Anti-Primary Movement

“I think one of the benefits that come from difficult economic times, for conservatives, is that we have the political ability to reexamine every spending issue,” Texas Republican National Committeeman Tim Lambert told me recently. “Some states are deciding that taxpayers should not be funding the nomination process of the national political parties. I hope this may lead to the more Republican method of choosing our presidential nominee by convention, as the parties did throughout the history of this country until the early 1970’s.”

Lambert, perhaps the most high-profile RNC member in favor of state conventions choosing national convention delegates rather than primaries, has reason to be optimistic. In five states so far this year, legislators are poised to eliminate the costly presidential primaries in ’04 and thus permit both state Republican and Democratic parties to choose delegates to New York City and Boston respectively by a means of their own choosing (i.e. conventions or caucuses).

This was the system used to choose delegates in most states before the 1970s, when primary laws were passed in many jurisdictions. Lambert and other anti-primary advocates argue that going back to a convention and caucus based system will give state parties more responsibility and clout and thereby reinvigorate them.

In 2004, reducing the number of primaries will have no noticeable impact on the Republicans, as President Bush is almost certain to be unopposed for re-nomination. But it could have a significant impact on the Democrats-out of whose fractious 1968 national convention the present system of primaries en masse was spawned. It is unclear who among the many Democrats now running for the party’s nomination would have the best chance of emerging with the largest number of delegates from a long series of caucuses.

Colorado, according to the Associated Press, “was first out of the chute.” Gripped by an $800 million deficit, the state legislature passed and Republican Gov. Bill Owens signed, a measure eliminating the presidential primary. The savings for Colorado taxpayers is estimated at $2.2 million.

Utah’s Republican legislature has voted to withhold funding for a primary, and Republican Gov. Mike Leavitt-who successfully lobbied for the state’s first-ever primary two years ago-is almost certain to go along. Utah’s savings would be about $600,000.

In Missouri, one House committee has penciled out the $3.7 million earmarked for the presidential primary, while another has voted to repeal the state’s presidential primary law. “It’s a budgetary matter,” Republican State Senate President Peter Kinder told me, adding his fond recollections of state conventions, notably the one in Springfield in 1976 “when [Ronald Reagan leader] John Powell kept the Jerry Ford forces from getting a single delegate in what we remember as the ‘Springfield massacre.'”

Both Colorado and Utah picked their delegates by convention until 2000. So they actually would be returning to standard procedure-something largely welcomed by party activists. Missouri, too, had a long history of picking delegates at a convention, the exceptions being in 1988 when Rep. Richard Gephardt was seeking the Democratic nomination and 2000, when former Sen. Bill Bradley sought the Democratic nod. Gephardt, again seeking the Democratic nomination, wants a primary next year.

Kansas, which did not hold a primary in 1996 or 2000, has begun the cancellation process. Its state senate has endorsed the bill ending the primary and Republican House Speaker Doug Mays supports it. Republican leaders in Oklahoma are clearly moving to a return to a convention process. A state senate committee in Arizona voted recently to end the $3 million presidential primary. Republican State Sen. Jack Harper explained his support to end the primary that was launched in 1980: “I’m trying to wring every dollar out of state government that I can.”

Assistant U.S. Attorney General Tom Sansonetti, a past Republican National Committeeman from Wyoming and chairman of the Rules Committee at the 2000 national convention, recently recalled to me how three years ago, an all-time high of 43 states chose GOP national convention delegates by primaries, while only seven states (including his own Wyoming) did so by convention. Should all the states now beginning the process of scrapping primaries follow through, the number of non-primary states will be up to 18 in 2004. Again, this will have no dramatic political impact on the Republican side given the certainty of Bush’s re-nomination. But should this trend be maintained, the nomination process in 2008 could look like it did in 1968-and political pundits may have a national convention that is more meaningful than a mere coronation.

Short Takes

LA Not-So-Confidential: Two of Los Angeles Mayor James Hahn’s bitterest political enemies made citywide headlines last week. Both former Police Chief Bernard Parks and former State Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa were runaway winners in races for open seats on the Los Angeles City Council. Parks, after considerable negative publicity involving corruption within the LAPD’s Rampart division, was passed over for a second five-year term as chief last year as Hahn made it clear he wanted a new top cop. Villaraigosa was beaten for mayor in ’01 by fellow Democrat Hahn after a nasty campaign that included TV spots focusing on the former speaker’s successful attempt to win a presidential pardon for the son of one of his campaign contributors who happened to be a convicted cocaine dealer. Both of the newly-elected councilmen were immediately talked of as potential opponents to Hahn when he comes up for re-election in ’05. . . .

Davis Drops More: With California sinking deeper into a fiscal abyss, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis’s popularity continues to plummet. Four months after his narrow re-election, Davis has the approval of only 27% of Calilfornians in the Los Angeles Times poll, while a whopping 64% disapprove of his performance. “The breadth of ill will toward Davis is striking,” concluded the Times. “A majority of nearly every bloc of Californians gives him negative job ratings: men and women; Democrats, Republicans and independents, conservatives, moderates, and liberals.” The same survey also showed that 54% of his fellow Democrats rate Davis negatively and even labor union members-long a pivotal part of the governor’s coalition-disapprove of his performance by a margin of 69% to 21%. . . .

Erwin Exits: With the term of California’s Republican State Chairman Shawn Steel up, the party’s operating head is also leaving. Ryan Erwin, who had cut his political eyeteeth in Nevada Republican campaigns including those of conservative Sen. John Ensign in 2000, is leaving the party’s headquarters in Burbank to return to the Silver State and open up his own political consulting firm. When I discussed his resignation during the debate for party chairman at the GOP state convention in Sacramento last month, Erwin cited a desire to be his own boss and to raise his newborn baby in Nevada as chief reasons for leaving. Incoming California GOP Chairman Duf Sundheim has yet to tap a new executive director. . . .

Bo’s Back on Barr’s Bandwagon: He was considered the “Boy Wonder” of Georgia Republican politics, the Karl Rove of the Peach State. Having orchestrated Rep. John Linder’s dramatic (and big) nomination win in a new district over fellow Republican Rep. Bob Barr last year, Bo Harmon went on to manage Republican Saxby Chambliss’s dramatic upset of Democratic Sen. Max Cleland. It goes without saying that Harmon has been a campaign operative-in-demand. So who will have his services in ’04? None other than old target Barr; the former congressman (1994-2000) and conservative firebrand is attempting a comeback in the 6th District (suburban Atlanta) vacated by Rep. Johnny Isakson, who is running for Senate. Harmon will manage Barr’s campaign. Barr’s leading primary opponent so far is State Sen. Robert Lamutt. . . .

Jeb For Jennings: Although Florida conservatives are almost always delighted with Republican Gov. Jeb Bush, they were, for the most part, stunned and put off by his choice of a lieutenant governor last week. With the resignation of incumbent Republican Frank Brogan to become president of Florida Atlantic University, Bush last week tapped former State Senate President Toni Jennings to replace him, thereby making Orlando Republican Jennings the first woman lieutenant governor in Sunshine State history. What mystifies conservatives about this choice is that Jennings was the chief Republican roadblock in the state legislature to Bush’s tax cut package in 1999. With the governor “termed out” in 2006, the 53-year-old Jennings would be a strong candidate to succeed him. However, since the office was created in the late 1960’s, no lieutenant governor has ever been elected to the state’s highest office.