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US Democrats seek to delay primary

But Mass. leaders dislike strategy

By Frank Phillips
Globe Staff / April 6, 2011

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National Democratic leaders are asking state party officials to delay the Massachusetts presidential primary from March 6 until later in the spring, arguing in part that allowing the most Republican states to dominate the early voting would bolster the chances that a more conservative candidate will clinch the GOP nomination.

Democrats believe that the more conservative candidates would be polarizing in the national election and have less of a chance of defeating President Obama than a moderate Republican, such as Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts.

But the reception on Beacon Hill, where the Legislature and the governor would have to approve a delay, has not been positive. Senate President Therese Murray, whose support is critical, is said to be cool to the idea. Secretary of State William F. Galvin, the state’s chief election officer, said he is dead set against moving to an April date.

“We told them we are not interested,’’ Galvin said. “It is not in the interest of Massachusetts to do this. The gain of more delegate slots is not a good reason to manipulate the election calendar. There is no appetite for it here.’’

In recent weeks, Tim Kaine, Democratic National Party chairman, and his staff have made personal appeals to local party officials by pointing to the party rules that would increase the Massachusetts convention delegation by 10 percent if the primary is held in April or even 15 percent if the primary is held as part of a regional cluster after March 20.

Senior Democratic officials have confirmed that one of the arguments that national Democrats are using to encourage later primaries and, most preferably, a regional primary in the Northeast is that this would better enable conservative forces in the GOP race to establish their candidacies.

The national Democratic Party denied yesterday it has any motive other than to encourage states to set primaries that bring some order to what has often been a chaotic and rushed process.

“It’s not only good policy; it’s good for our state parties, and we encourage all states to participate,’’ said Michael Czin, a spokesman for the Democratic National Committee. “The goal of this policy is to bring needed coherence to the primary calendar.

“There are a lot of reasons to move back primaries, from saving money in states that can combine their state and presidential primaries to getting more delegates for the state,’’ he said. “States will do what is right and best for them.’’

Galvin confirmed that Kaine had contacted him and made a pitch for moving the primary date, although he did not comment on whether they discussed the potential effect on Republicans.

State Senator Richard T. Moore, who is president of the National Conference of State Legislatures, pushed the idea of a delay in a closed Senate caucus last week, according to a senior legislative source. And John Walsh, state party chairman, said he has had “discussions with folks in Washington’’ about moving the date.

But Galvin said that an April primary would collide with scheduled nonpartisan elections for local office, creating unnecessary confusion. Each polling precinct, for instance, would need to have two sets of workers and two sets of voter lists, he said.

“Our experience has been that it costs more money and creates voter confusion,’’ Galvin said. “We regularly discourage it.’’

Many of the early primaries are held in more conservative states. The January caucuses in Iowa are dominated by the right-wing base of the state GOP.

The first presidential primary election of next year will be held the following week in New Hampshire, where the Republican electorate has taken a sharp turn to the right. The race will then move to states including South Carolina, where a more moderate candidate like Romney would struggle. The push to spread out the primary elections to early June has been a bipartisan effort by national Democratic and Republican leaders to bring some order to what is often a jumbled and hectic schedule of contests.

Walsh said he had heard discussion of moving the more moderate GOP primaries into the spring.

“I respect those who handicap national elections, but I don’t put a lot of weight in those discussions,’’ he said.

“How it plays in the presidential election is at most speculative,’’ Walsh said. “It is much less important for me as to how it plays with the national trend than what it does for Massachusetts.’’

Walsh said he has been talking with party officials in other New England states, particularly in Connecticut, about creating a regional primary, but nothing has been decided.

Secretary of State Denise Merrill of Connecticut said she expected some decisions shortly about moving the state’s Feb. 6 primary date to early April. She also downplayed the discussions she has heard about the strategy to empower GOP conservatives in the Republican race.

“I have heard the speculation, but I am not sure it would hold up as an argument,’’ she said. “It sounds like wishful thinking.’’

A Romney spokesman declined to comment on the reports that the Democrats were looking to promote early conservative primaries in order to create political problems for so-called establishment candidates like Romney and Tim Pawlenty, former governor of Minnesota.

William G. Mayer, a Northeastern University professor of political science, said any maneuver by either party to manipulate the schedule for its advantage undercuts the integrity of the election process.

“It is not a great thing when one party tries to set the rules to make it difficult for another party,’’ said Mayer, author of a book on the scheduling of presidential primaries. He noted the move in 2008 by Republican supporters to bolster Hillary Rodham Clinton’s candidacy as she struggled to stop Obama. They encouraged GOP voters to cast ballots for Clinton in state primary elections that are open to all voters, hoping to extend the fight between the two.

Mayer said that states want to hold primaries as early as possible because it allows them to be major players in the selection of party nominees. Massachusetts had long held its primaries in early March before moving them to February in 2008 as part of an effort to have a say before a nominee had built a lead. The state has never been an influential force in the primary races.

But this year, the trend has been for many states to seriously consider moving their 2012 election dates to later in the primary cycle. At least 19 states have bills pending in their legislatures that would reschedule their primaries to later dates.

Frank Phillips can be reached at phillips@globe.com.