JEFFERSON CITY — The state Senate backed a plan Wednesday to push Missouri to the front of the 2012 presidential primary calendar — a move that would clash with a schedule agreed to by both major parties and that could cost Missouri votes at the national nominating conventions.
Told by the national Republican and Democratic parties to move Missouri's primary back a month or more or risk penalties, the state Senate instead voted 16-14 to move the primary date up to a week after New Hampshire holds its contest. New Hampshire hasn't scheduled its primary, but it has a state law mandating that it be held at least a week before any other state's.
Missouri's 2008 presidential primary was held the first week of February. Sen. Kevin Engler, a Republican from Farmington who sponsored a bill that would have moved the primary to early March, told the Senate on Tuesday that Missouri has to hold its primary no sooner than March to conform to guidelines agreed to last year by the Republican and Democratic parties.
But Sen. Brad Lager, R-Savannah, who proposed the amendment moving the date up, said New Hampshire and Iowa receive a disproportionate amount of attention from presidential primary campaigns because of their traditionally early primary and caucus events.
"I'm going to make Missouri relevant in the presidential election process," he said. "If it works in Iowa, why wouldn't it work here?"
Engler said Missouri wouldn't gain any influence from an earlier primary date because the parties will reduce the number of delegates the state is able to seat at the parties' national conventions, giving Missouri less of a say in which candidates are nominated. The parties penalized Florida and Michigan in 2008 for holding early primaries.
"We're not going to be more relevant, no matter what we do," Engler said.
Lloyd Smith, the executive director of the Missouri Republican Party, said the Republican National Committee would seat a portion Missouri's delegates even if it held a February primary, but the portion could be less than half of its 11 delegates.
Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, said it is unlikely a party would risk alienating a state before the November general election by turning away a portion of its delegates.
"What candidate is going to say that they'll penalize a state after the primary and before the election?" he asked.
Sen. John Lamping, R-Ladue, said an earlier primary date would also bring more attention from campaigns and the media, potentially creating a temporary economic boost for the state from visiting campaigners.
But Missouri Democratic Party chairwoman Susan Montee said both parties made a strong push to prevent frontloading in the 2012 primaries and would be reluctant to bend their new rules for Missouri.
Granting an exception to one state could force the parties to make exceptions for every state, rendering the new rules irrelevant.
"I think that there was a real effort at reforming the system" after the 2008 primaries, Montee said. "I wouldn't want to test it (the new rules) in its first year."
The Democratic National Committee has offered states a chance to seat more delegates if they have later primaries. In February, Montee said being able to send more delegates could help generate enthusiasm and increase turnout among potential Democratic voters.
The Senate must vote on the bill one more time before it is sent to the House. Engler, who expressed frustration after Lager's amendment was approved, could choose not to bring the bill up for that second vote.
If no bill is passed this session to modify Missouri's primary date, the primary election would be scheduled for Feb. 7, violating the parties' rules in the same way.