GOP ready to set March 15, 2016, as Fla.’s presidential primary

People vote during a primary election at the Polish American Club of Miami.
People vote during a primary election at the Polish American Club of Miami. EL NUEVO HERALD FILE, 2011

Florida Republicans are ready to ditch the first-up status in the 2016 presidential preference primary and are drafting legislation to move the date back to the third Tuesday in March.

The bill, to be offered by Senate Ethics and Elections Committee Chairman Garrett Richter, R-Naples, is expected to set March 15, 2016, as the new primary date, moving it into compliance with Democratic and Republican party rules. It would also guarantee that Florida has a full complement of delegates for its native sons former Gov. Jeb Bush and U.S. Sen. Marco Rubio — should either emerge from the GOP contest, Richter told the Herald/Times.

“We want Florida to be meaningful and relevant in the presidiential elections,” Richter said. “We don’t want to come under any penalties and we want to have the candidates come to Florida and actively campaign.”

The switch would strongly favor Bush or Rubio over candidates from other states, and potentially allow the state GOP to award delegates winner-take-all. The Republican National Committee rules prevent a candidate from receiving winner-take-all delegates any earlier than the 15th. Before then, it must be proportional or the state gets penalized.

The Republican Party of Florida will make the decision when it sets its delegate allocation procedures by Oct 1, 2015.

The new date would reset the calendar back to where it had been before Rubio, the former state House speaker, and his colleagues upset their national party’s primary schedule by setting Florida’s contest earlier than allowed in 2008.

The state retained the early status in 2012 and was punished by party leaders, who stripped them of half of their delegates; Democrats banned candidates from campaigning in the Sunshine State in 2008.

Richter said the Florida primary will follow the traditional early primary states of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, but would eschew the effort by other Southern states to create a regional Super Tuesday on March 1.

Georgia’s secretary of state had attempted to get Florida and Texas on board for a Southern Super Tuesday matchup that could be a boost for Southern candidates from the region, including Ted Cruz and Rick Perry from Texas. Several other states, including Virginia, Texas, Oklahoma, Tennessee and Massachusetts, are now set to hold their primaries on Super Tuesday.

“Republican or Democrat, Florida ought to play a major role in deciding who the next president is,’’ said Senate President Andy Gardiner, R-Orlando, a Bush supporter. He noted how Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton in 2008 “came to the state to pick up checks but didn’t even campaign here.”

“I want them all here and I want them all telling us what they would like to do for Florida,’’ he said. “We’ve got military issues, aerospace issues with NASA and all those things. Let’s hold them accountable, and you hold them accountable by making them come here and ask for your vote.”

The state GOP’s newfound respect for the Republican National Convention’s primary rules also stems from the fact that the penalty could become far more severe next time the state breaks rank. Rather than force the state to lose some of its convention delegates, the RNC has said it would strip the state of nearly all its delegates, from almost 100 to 12.

Florida Democrats have said they are supportive of moving the primary back to a date that allows them to follow their national party rules.