Start Your Engines

Presidential Calendar Means Accelerated Congressional Contests

Posted March 30, 2007 at 6:17pm

Lost in the hoopla over the front-loaded White House primary calendar is the fact that Congressional primaries also will be moved up in at least a few states next year — a direct result of the states’ jockeying to have more say in the presidential nominating process.

Three states so far — Texas, Illinois and Maryland — appear likely to hold House and Senate primaries next February, and others could follow. Filing deadlines in each of these three states would be in early December 2007, and early and absentee voting could begin before Christmas.

“My guess is there’s a lot of hand-wringing over at the Congressional [campaign] committees because of this,” said Jim Dornan, a Washington, D.C.-based Republican strategist.

Through the early 1990s, many states scheduled their presidential and Congressional primaries at the same time. But since then, states have rushed to hold their White House primaries increasingly earlier, and most of those that did opted to keep their Congressional primaries later in the year.

In 2008, as many as 20 states could hold presidential nominating contests on Feb. 5, including Texas and Illinois. Maryland is poised to move its primary to Feb. 12. All three have continued to tie their Congressional primaries to the presidential primary date in White House election years, meaning the Congressional primaries will also be moved up next year.

“There’s going to be a lot of change and unintended consequences” due to the accelerated presidential primary calendar, predicted Kay Stimson, a spokeswoman for the National Association of Secretaries of State.

While pundits debate the political ramifications of holding so many presidential primaries on one day, there is no escaping the conclusion that early Congressional primaries should benefit incumbents — particularly if they’re facing competitive primary challenges. That’s because the challengers will have that much less time to raise money and organize their campaigns.

That’s good news for two Democratic incumbents who could face primary challenges from the left next year. In Texas, Rep. Henry Cuellar, a conservative Democrat, is likely to be a perennial target of liberal groups who believe he isn’t sufficiently loyal to mainstream Democratic principles. While no Democrat has come forward to challenge him yet, former Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia (D) is seen as a possible candidate.

In Maryland, Rep. Albert Wynn (D) is likely to face a rematch with Donna Edwards (D), a lawyer and community activist who stunned the Free State political world by finishing just 3 points behind the veteran incumbent in the Democratic primary.

In the previous cycle, Edwards did not even publicly declare her intention to challenge Wynn in the September primary until June 2006. This cycle, Edwards acknowledged the vastly earlier timetable when she recently told The Gazette newspapers that she likely would declare her candidacy later this month.

Even though they are not likely to face divisive primary challenges, the early Congressional primary date also aids Texas Democratic incumbents who frequently are targeted by the GOP in the general election, said Matt Angle, a Democratic consultant with special knowledge of Lone Star State politics.

“It’s certainly helpful to people like [Democratic Reps.] Chet Edwards and Ciro Rodriguez,” Angle said. “If the Republicans have a real short fuse, it’s tougher for them to find a quality candidate.”

In the third early primary state, Illinois, the timetable could affect what is expected to be a wide-open race to replace retiring Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D). At least a half-dozen elected officials in his district are eyeing the race, and the Democratic primary is likely to produce the next Member of Congress from the Chicago-based 4th district.

Angle said even though some political watchdogs have criticized early primaries, they can be helpful to political parties.

“You want the primary to be as meaningful as possible because you want everybody to get your jersey on early,” he said.