Winner-take-all Florida primary slows parade of presidential candidates

Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson meets supporters at the University of New Hampshire on Wednesday. Carson is one of several candidates not spending much time campaigning in Florida.
Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson meets supporters at the University of New Hampshire on Wednesday. Carson is one of several candidates not spending much time campaigning in Florida.
Published Dec. 15, 2015

It was supposed to assert Florida's dominance in picking the Republican presidential nominee, but a move to push back the primary and award all delegates to the winner has rankled party activists who say it has made candidates wary of the state and could disenfranchise voters.

"It was a mistake. It's almost taken Florida out of play," said Randy Osborne, chairman of the Marion County Republican Executive Committee, who has been trading messages with other local leaders.

Campaigns are reluctant to talk about their plans but some are clearly questioning if it's worth engaging in a big, expensive state with two favorite son candidates, Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio.

Osborne, a supporter of Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, said Republicans in his area are "all kind of like 'Wow, how come candidates aren't spending money here? Where's the signs, the bumper stickers?' And that's not just Cruz."

Criticism is apparent across Florida even as the state GOP chairman relented on a hardball gambit to force candidates to show up for a summit in November or be excluded from the March 15 primary ballot — itself a sign of the reluctance from candidates.

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It's entirely possible Bush and Rubio will be locked in a Florida battle royale that would cost tens of millions of dollars, so rival campaigns are looking at Florida with some caution, if relief.

"No one is saying it's the winner-take-all but they sure are finding a lot of excuses not to come," said Mike Lyster, Republican chairman in Collier County, adding that grass roots activists are itching to help out their chosen candidates.

He has raised objections with state GOP officials. "Some of us are saying, 'Gee, maybe this wasn't in our best interest.' " On the other hand, Lyster said he understood the need for candidates to accumulate large pockets of delegates and avoid a protracted nominating process.

It's early, of course, and candidates are focusing on the first nominating states. Some certainly won't be around by the end of the year. "We're going to be the ones that put the Republican nominee in the White House," said state chairman Blaise Ingoglia.

Ingoglia's November "Sunshine Summit" was struggling to attract candidates other than Bush and Rubio and then he came up with the idea to prevent anyone who skips from appearing on the ballot. An uproar ensued and Ingoglia backed off somewhat. Now candidates can show up at the summit or pay $25,000 or gather nearly 3,400 signatures from Republican voters.

Last week the party announced it had secured commitments from Donald Trump, Mike Huckabee, Bobby Jindal and Lindsey Graham, in addition to Bush and Rubio. Trump, Bush and Rubio alone will make for a lively event sure to generate national media attention.

But that doesn't mean candidates are eager to spend significant resources in the state or that activists are satisfied. The summit will for the first time in recent cycles not feature a straw poll, which made campaigns focus on organization and excited the grass roots.

The flip side is that it was won by Herman Cain in 2012 and he became punch line.

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In 2008, Florida was eager to seize the spotlight. Led by then-state House Speaker Rubio, who said the state's size and diversity were more relevant than the mostly white electorates in Iowa and New Hampshire, the primary was moved up to Jan. 29.

That triggered national GOP sanctions and effectively made the state winner-take-all.

The 2012 primary also was accelerated and "properly reflects the importance Florida will play on the national stage," a state official said at the time. The move incensed people in Iowa and New Hampshire.

This election, the Republican National Committee worked to control rogue states, threatening deeper retribution. Twelve states jumped ahead of Florida with a March 1 primary. The catch is their delegates will be awarded proportionally, meaning candidates who place well will come away with something versus a winner-take-all structure for Florida and other states that hold primaries March 15 or later.

"A lot of candidates are saying 'Let's come up with a plan on how to win enough delegates without spending all the money in Florida,' " said Osborne, the Marion County official.

"We should have gone as early as we could and we should have fought any effort of the national party to punish us for representing common sense," said GOP strategist Brian Hughes, a Bush supporter.

Still, he agrees with the winner-take-all approach. "It represents the boldness of what the state is.," Hughes said. "We should be a big prize."

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Ingoglia is confident candidates will come.

"Florida is not only a crucial swing state. It's also a test of organizational strength," he said. "The person who can mount a good ground game here in Florida is a campaign that's going to be ready for the general election."

The March 15 date was set by the Legislature and the winner-take-all was approved in May by the state GOP executive board.

Though no one publicly said so, that was widely viewed as a gift to Bush. After Bush signaled he was likely to run in late 2014, most of the GOP political establishment assumed Rubio would not challenge him.

Now both Bush and Rubio trail Trump in Florida polls.

"There were some unintended consequences," Alachua County GOP Chairman Stafford Jones said. "Most of the other, non-Florida candidates have said Florida is not really a priority. They haven't spent as much time here. Then Donald Trump comes along and changes all the rules of the game, and even Marco and Jeb are struggling to have a frontrunner status in their home state."

Mark Fisher, a lawyer and member of the Lake County Republican Executive Committee who opposes the move, complained to Republican Attorney General Pam Bondi at a recent party gathering, but he was told she could not get involved in a partisan issue. Fisher said there's still talk of a challenge, though there doesn't appear to be much momentum.

Referring to his candidate, Cruz, Fisher said: "He's committed to be in Florida but maybe not with the same vigor or energy. You have to pick your battles when you don't have infinite resources."

"Looking forward, we certainly need to take a look at whether winner-take-all makes sense for Florida," said Nick DiCeglie, GOP chairman in Pinellas County. "Some of the candidates our grass roots activists were looking forward to getting an opportunity to see and meet, they're not getting that opportunity."

Contact Alex Leary at Follow @learyreports. Contact Adam C. Smith at Follow @adamsmithtimes.