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Marco Rubio gets Florida Legislature to eliminate early primary in 2016

@MarcACaputo and @MikeVanSickler

U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio persuaded state lawmakers to make a last-minute change eliminating Florida’s early presidential primary – a race in which the Republican could be on the ballot.

Rubio’s main concern was shared by lawmakers and operatives from both parties: Ensuring that Florida’s 2016 primary vote counts. The measure, barely discussed, was tucked in an election-reform bill that passed the Legislature by wide margins Friday.

Right now, the Sunshine State’s early primary violates Democratic and Republican national party rules, which penalizes the state by severely devaluing the vote of its delegation to nominate each party’s presidential candidate.

Florida Republicans, for instance, would only have 12 delegates instead of 99 if the state kept its early primary in January or early February.

“We would go from being the third-largest delegation to being the smallest,” said Todd Reid, state director for Rubio.

Asked about Rubio’s potential bid for president in 2016, Reid said the changes had nothing to do with the senator’s political future and noted that Democrats support the changes as much, if not more, than Republicans.

The Democratic penalties are even worse than the GOP’s. If the state has an early primary, none of the Democrats’ delegates would count in 2016, nor did they in 2008.

That was the first year the early primary was held, in late January, and it was done at the urging of Rubio, who was House Speaker at the time. Under Republican rules, the state was only penalized half of its delegation then and in 2012, so it made the early race worth it to give Florida more national exposure.

But the new penalties by the Republican National Committee made the early primary too prohibitive for Republicans, who control the Legislature.

On Friday afternoon, Reid suggested changing the election law to ensure the primary vote jibes with party rules, effectively setting the date in early March of 2016.

Reid reached out to Steve Schale, a top Florida Democratic consultant and advisor to President Obama’s campaign. Schale checked with the Florida Democratic Party and the Democratic National Committee, where higher-ups quickly signed off on the plan.

“It sounds like a great idea,” Schale said he told Reid.

“I’m tired of my party being unable to count our delegates,” Schale said. “I’m worn out with being penalized by the DNC for having an early primary even though my party in Florida had nothing to with setting the early primary date.”

The bill also eliminates a special committee that was established to set the early primary in 2012.

Republican lawmakers say the committee isn’t needed. And they want to eliminate it in the off chance that former Gov. Charlie Crist beats Gov. Rick Scott and stocks the committee with Republicans friendly to Crist, who left the GOP before he lost to Rubio in 2010 and has now become a Democrat.

The new primary-date provision, passed as an amendment Friday afternoon, specifically says Florida’s primary be held “on the first Tuesday that the rules of the major political parties provide for state delegations to be allocated without penalty.”

That would put Florida in compliance with rules recently passed the Republican National Committee, which requires states to hold a primary or caucus before the final Tuesday in February.

The RNC made the changes after the last two elections, when it struggled to stop renegade states like Florida and Michigan from moving up their primary dates to get ahead of traditional caucus and primary states like Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina.

When Florida jumped ahead last year, the GOP penalized the party by allowing only 49 delegates of 99 delegates.

Also, Florida’s Republican delegates were given far-away hotel rooms during the Republican National Convention – even though it was held in their home-state city of Tampa.

In some cases, Florida delegates were stuck for hours on a bus as they tried to head to the RNC event.

“This way, no one from Florida should have to wait on a bus for six hours,” Reid said.