How early GOP primaries affect Illinois pols

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WASHINGTON, DC - OCTOBER 04: U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) calls on the Senate pass the budget that cleared the House last April during a news conference at the U.S. Capitol October 4, 2011 in Washington, DC. Noting that the Senate has not passed a budget in 888 days, Hultgren and fellow House GOP freshmen put forward their “Operation Turnaround,” a slate of 12 House-passed bills they say will spur job growth, reduce regulation, shrink the national debt and balance the budget. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) R:MerlinGetty_Photos127980657.jpg

In a heated fight for a presidential nomination, the calendar that lays out the timing of state primaries and caucuses is often crucial.

In recent presidential nomination battles there has been a de facto “first four states” batting order: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. What is not always understood is that while the party national committees of both major parties can set some guidelines for presidential delegate selection, the individual state parties set the election rules and their primary or caucus dates.

As in 2008, Florida once again is going rogue by pushing up its primary date. This could have huge consequences in choosing the Republican presidential nominee and dramatically impact the Illinois GOP primary on March 20.

Why? First, the national perspective: Florida’s move to Jan. 31 has already forced South Carolina to push its primary to Jan. 21. Then, on Wednesday, Nevada moved its presidential caucuses from February to Jan. 14. The remaining first two states also may move up, even if it means holding their elections in December. In defying the Republican National Committee, Florida Republicans risk losing half of their delegate allotment to the 2012 GOP national convention. However, given the electoral vote importance of Florida, they think the RNC will back off the penalty.

How will this state “moving on up” affect Illinois? It could have a major impact. Illinois’ primary date is March 20, and under the original RNC calendar it could have been a key state in determining the GOP presidential nominee. Now that’s unlikely. However, the new calendar might have significant consequences on several hotly contested Republican congressional primaries.

If the GOP presidential nominee has been determined by March 20, there will most likely be a falloff in Republican turnout. This could be a huge benefit to congressional candidates aligned and allied with the state’s Tea Party movement, which is determined to make a difference in 2012. Unlike some traditional GOP voters, they probably will not stay home if there’s no presidential ballot battle. Rather, they will go to the polls en masse to vote for Republican candidates at all levels who reflect their views.

Case study: The new 14th Congressional District that pits Republican Congressman Joe Walsh, who now represents the 8th District, and incumbent U.S. Rep. Randy Hultgren in an expected high-powered grudge match. Walsh’s appeal to Tea Party advocates is well-known. Hultgren is a traditional DuPage County Republican who reflects the GOP establishment. In a lower than expected Republican turnout, Tea Party voters will make up a larger percentage of the vote – advantage Walsh.

If by some chance the presidential nominee race has still not been determined, Hultgren would be in a much better political position – advantage neither man. For example, if there is a contested Illinois presidential showdown between Mitt Romney and Rick Perry, there is little doubt that Tea Party turnout would have far less impact on congressional primaries.

My advice to all Republican candidates: Keep your eye on the calendar. It could prove decisive.

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