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Missouri's Longstanding Dispute Over Presidential Primaries May Be Resolved

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Missouri’s chaotic history with presidential primaries may finally be settled, now that Gov. Jay Nixon has signed into law a measure that sets the state’s presidential primary date in March.

Under the new law, Missouri’s once-every-four-years primary would be held on the second Tuesday after the first Monday. In 2016, that date would be March 15 – the first day allowed by the two national political parties without incurring penalties.

Setting a firm date that complies with the parties' rules also might help Kansas City to land the 2016 Republican National Convention. The city is among the finalists.

Since 2010, both national parties have had strict rules mandating that the first presidential caucuses or primaries be held in Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina – generally in late January or February.

Other states have been barred from breaking ranks. Those who have held such events before March have been penalized – or, at minimum, threatened with punishments when they have done so. The biggest threat has been to refuse to seat a state's delegates at the presidential conventions, although both parties have backed off imposing such a penalty.

That edict has put Missouri in the presidential cross-hairs for years because the state's presidential primary has generally been in February.

In 2012, for example, Missouri got around both parties’ sanctions by making the February primary a non-binding “beauty contest,’’ with the real presidential-delegate selections in caucuses in the spring. 

Until this year, efforts to move Missouri’s presidential primary to comply with the parties' rules have died in the General Assembly. A March presidential-primary bill passed in 2011 but was vetoed by Nixon  because of unrelated provisions in the measure.

Missouri generally a caucus state for presidential contests

Missouri had been a caucus state until 1988, when the then-Democratic-controlled General Assembly set up a presidential primary to boost the White House bid of U.S. Rep. Richard A. Gephardt, D-St. Louis. 

Afterward, the state reverted to caucuses. But after a raucous caucus season in 1996, which saw the state's GOP establishment under siege from conservative insurgents, both parties resurrected Missouri's presidential primary in 2000.  That year saw a hot GOP contest in the state between George W. Bush and John McCain and a combative Democratic battle between Al Gore and Bill Bradley (who represented New Jersey in the U.S. Senate but grew up in Crystal City and was a major Missouri basketball star in high school).

Missouri’s primaries were held in February in 2004 and 2008 – the latter attracting a lot of interest because of the razor-thin Democratic split between Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. Obama narrowly won, but the two ended up with the same number of Missouri delegates.

The new primary law signed by Nixon doesn’t stipulate whether the parties must award delegates based on the candidates’ primary totals or whether separate caucuses may still be held. That means the state and national parties can still hash it out.

The new law doesn't address another sticking point for the national parties: Missouri voters do not register by party, so all primaries are "open,'' meaning anybody can take any party's ballot.  At various times, the national parties have unsuccessfully sought to persuade the General Assembly to change that process and end "crossover votes,'' where blocs of voters aligned with one party take another party's primary ballot instead.

Jo Mannies is a freelance journalist and former political reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.