RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — North Carolina Republicans are tired of being in the back of the line when choosing presidential nominees. But their decision to leapfrog toward the front in the primary season could cost the state its influence in GOP politics and sets up a Carolinas clash with its neighbor.
For more than 25 years the GOP presidential nomination has already been sewn up by the time North Carolina primary voters get their turn in early May. A new state law moves the primaries to three days after South Carolina's — sometime in February. An earlier race raises hope among some that North Carolina will finally make a difference, especially with so many Republican candidates lining up to compete for the nomination next year.
But shuffling the political calendar has consequences, as other states champing at the bit have found in the past. North Carolina's move runs afoul of Republican Party rules and risks costing the state more than 80 percent of its delegates to the GOP convention. That would probably keep most of the candidates away from the parades, political Lincoln Day dinners and most North Carolina television markets until later in the year, when the November presidential election is underway and it's only a head-to-head race.
"North Carolina threatens to upend the process, mostly to their own detriment," South Carolina GOP Chairman Matt Moore said in an interview. He's unhappy about his state's turn on the stage being crowded by its neighbor. South Carolina's primaries are expected Feb. 13 or 20 next year, meaning North Carolina's would be also come that month.
This conflicts with the national party's demand that only four states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — hold presidential contests before March 1. Any state that jumps ahead risks losing most of its voting convention delegates.
North Carolina GOP Chairman Claude Pope wants the primaries held March 1 to escape the national party's penalty yet give his state an earlier race than before. "A presidential candidate who wins a primary in North Carolina could immediately jump to front-runner status in a very crowded field," Pope wrote in a recent op-ed.
He and national Republican leaders are prodding the state to change the law. But there's not unanimity about the change, meaning an intraparty fight could be brewing with North Carolina's smaller but feisty southern neighbor.
Charlotte-area GOP Sen. Bob Rucho, who favors the February primary, said national GOP leaders set the "arbitrary" March 1 threshold a year after North Carolina set its new date. The four leadoff states still would go first, he said, so North Carolina's change "doesn't interfere at all with the sequence."
The Republican National Committee has punished states before for attempting to cut in line — slashing Florida's delegate count by half in 2012 — but that didn't seem to stop the movement. So party leaders have increased the stakes.
"We are very confident that all states will be in compliance with the party rules in the coming months," said committee spokesman Sean Spicer.
A few states with very early contests — Utah, Colorado and New York — sound ready to delay their elections or otherwise avoid the penalty, according to Josh Putnam, an Appalachian State University professor. But "the one that's the most problematic for the parties right now has got to be North Carolina," said Putnam, who writes a presidential primaries calendar blog.
The Democratic National Committee also has punished states that move their primaries earlier. The 2013 North Carolina law also directs the Democratic presidential primary to be held on the same day as the GOP contest.
It's important for Republican presidential candidates to set toeholds early in North Carolina, a likely general election battleground state. Barack Obama narrowly won North Carolina's 15 electoral votes in 2008, but Mitt Romney edged Obama in 2012.
South Carolina worries that a North Carolina primary just three days after its own would siphon off candidates, political advertising and other benefits. "If they encroach on us, we will make sure that the RNC enforces the rules," said Cindy Costa, a Republican National Committee member from South Carolina.
Associated Press writers Bill Barrow in Atlanta and Steve Peoples in Washington contributed to this report.