Early Texas primary may play vital role in 2016 GOP nomination battle

Bush logoby Jonathan Tilove – American-Statesman Staff

PerryFor the first time in decades, Texans will play a pivotal role in choosing the GOP presidential candidate, with an early primary, a wide open race and several candidates with strong Texas ties who must do well here to move on.

The March 1, 2016, primary will not only be do-or-die for favorite sons Ted Cruz and Rick Perry, if they are still in the hunt then, but, because of its size and prime spot on the political calendar, potentially decisive in determining the ultimate nominee.

“Under nearly all plausible scenarios, Texas will range from being important to being the pinnacle, the climax, of the primary process,” Texas Christian University political scientist Adam Schiffer said.

For Texas Republicans, it would be the first time since 1980 — when Ronald Reagan finished off George H.W. Bush in the Texas primary — that the state that has become a cornerstone of the Republican electoral map will play a significant role in picking the party’s nominee.

Texas Republicans are relishing the prospect.

“You bet I am, with a smile on my face,” said Tom Mechler, the newly elected state party chairman. “As the reddest of all red states we should have a say about who the next Republican presidential nominee is.”

“It’s definitely good for Texas, good for the consultants, good for the media and good for the voters of Texas to have the candidates come here to make their case, and for Texans to get to see the candidates,” said Brendan Steinhauser, an Austin-based Republican strategist who, as director of federal and state campaigns for FreedomWorks, helped elect Cruz to the U.S. Senate in 2012 and managed U.S. Sen. John Cornyn’s 2014 re-election campaign.

“It is a conservative state. It is a state with more Republican congressmen than any other state in the country. It deserves a front-loaded look at the candidates,” Steinhauser said.

The 2016 Texas primary will immediately follow the four early contests — the Jan. 18 Iowa caucuses, Jan. 26 New Hampshire primary, Feb. 13 Nevada caucuses and Feb. 23 South Carolina primary. These are the intense, “retail” political states, to which candidates, and the attendant media coverage, devote most of their time and attention between now and then.

Image: BESTPIX Jeb Bush Speaks At Detroit Economic ClubThere are moves afoot across the South to turn March 1 into what has been dubbed an “SEC Primary.” Virginia, Tennessee and Georgia — and more than likely also Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi — will hold their primaries on March 1, according to Appalachian State University political scientist Josh Putnam, who closely tracks the political calendar. Massachusetts and Vermont also will hold primaries, and Minnesota its caucuses, on March 1.

But Putnam said Texas, which has more delegates than any state other than California, will remain “top dog” on the first multistate primary day.

“It makes Texas hugely important,” University of Texas government professor Daron Shaw said. “It’s going to be fun for a change.”

Cruz and Perry

Unless one candidate dominates the first four contests, the GOP nomination race, now the most wide open and potentially crowded in memory, is unlikely to be settled by March 1. But it will probably have jelled by then into a contest with at best a handful of serious contenders.

If either Cruz, who last week became the first of the major candidates to formally announce his candidacy, or former Gov. Perry, who appears certain to follow, remain in the mix by March 1, Texas would offer a make-or-break opportunity.

Tx AtMEither Cruz or Perry would be perceived as having a home state advantage, and it is unlikely that either could survive as a serious contender after finishing anything but first in Texas. It seems unlikely that both Texans would still be in the race after March 1.

Putnam said Texas is so expensive to campaign across that some candidates might decide to deploy resources elsewhere on March 1, especially if they are going up against the state’s junior senator or longest-serving governor.

But a big win by Cruz or Perry in Texas, coming off a strong performance in one or more of the early contests and success in other March 1 states, might make their momentum unstoppable.

For just that reason, even if Cruz or Perry is in the mix, Texas is too big a prize for other serious candidates to entirely ignore.

That is especially the case for Jeb Bush and Rand Paul.

Bush, who was raising money in Houston and Fort Worth last week, was born in Midland and is the son and brother of the last two Republican presidents, one of whom lives in Houston and the other in Dallas. He is also the father of Texas’ new land commissioner, George P. Bush.

“By virtue of being a Bush, by virtue of being a Texas native, even if you see some danger signs, for Jeb it looks awfully hard to blow this day off,” Shaw said. “You can skip Iowa. You can skip New Hampshire. You can’t skip Texas.”

Paul, who grew up in Lake Jackson, is the son of Texas’ former U.S. Rep. Ron Paul, who assembled a young volunteer army in his runs for president. Rand Paul attended Baylor University, where he was active in Young Conservatives of Texas. Steve Munisteri, who, as Texas GOP chairman, guided Texas’ move into a prime spot on the electoral calendar, just left his party post to join the Paul campaign as senior advisor. Paul, during a visit to Austin for South by Southwest, also has opened his campaign’s tech and social media office in Austin.

According to the February University of Texas/Texas Tribune poll, Texans are open to out-of-state candidates. After three consecutive polls in which Cruz led the field among likely GOP voters by double digits, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker had drawn even with Cruz. Walker visited the Texas-Mexico border Friday with Gov. Greg Abbott — who is remaining neutral in the presidential race — and met Republican movers and shakers Friday evening at a reception at Austin’s Headliners Club. The event wasn’t a fundraiser but it was hosted by Susan Lilly, a top GOP fundraiser. On Saturday, Walker was the keynote speaker at the Harris County Republican Party’s Lincoln-Reagan Dinner.

The Texas primary

Under national party rules, no state can have a winner-take-all primary before March 15, but the Texas GOP, under Munisteri, crafted a modified winner-take-all system for its March 1 primary.

Under the Texas plan, on primary day, each of the 36 congressional districts elect three GOP delegates, apportioned based on the result in that district among candidates who win at least 20 percent of the vote in that district, unless one candidate wins more than 50 percent of the vote in that district, in which case that candidate would receive all three delegates. If only one candidate wins more than 20 percent, that candidate would get all three delegates. If no candidate receives at least 20 percent, the three delegates would be divided among the top three vote-getters.

The same rules would apply for nine at-large delegates, who would be apportioned based on the statewide result.

What this means is that candidates could reap delegates by just targeting particular districts, that other candidates have an incentive in keeping a rival from cracking 50 percent, and that, even if Cruz or Perry had not finished particularly well in the first four contests, it might be worth hanging in through Texas in hopes of either reviving his candidacy or simply accumulating some delegates to take with him to what, at least potentially, could be a brokered convention.

The state party is submitting a letter explaining its delegate plan to the national party this week and expects it to be approved.

Under the Texas plan, 38 of what are expected to be the state’s 155 delegates will be held in reserve and awarded based on a vote at the party’s state convention in Dallas in May 2016. If the nomination isn’t decided by then, there will be a mad scramble for those delegates.

“Texas may get a second bite of the apple in May,” Munisteri said. “If the race is still alive at that May convention it is going to be the best political theater that we’ve had around here in a long time.”

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