KANSAS CITY — The head of the Republican National Committee bemoaned the GOP's presidential primary system as "a total disaster" Saturday while attempting to rally support from Midwesterners for a significant clamp-down on intraparty squabbles.
Party Chairman Reince Priebus defended plans to limit the number of debates and shorten the campaign season for the 2016 presidential primaries by severely penalizing states and candidates that stray from the national party's guidelines.
Priebus spoke to hundreds of party members gathered at the Midwest Republican Leadership Conferencec in Kansas City, which is among several sites seeking to host the Republican National Convention in 2016.
"Our primary system is a total disaster," Priebus said to the applause of fellow Republicans. In future elections, "we're not going to have a year-round slicing and dicing festival among our candidates."
Priebus defended plans to shorten the primary season by imposing "a death penalty" for any state that jumps ahead of the national party's calendar, cutting their delegates to the national convention to "next to zero." He proposed to hold no more than eight GOP primary debates, with the party picking the host partners and moderators. Candidates who participate in unsanctioned debates should be penalized 30 percent of their delegates, Priebus said.
He said the national convention will be moved up from late August to early July or late June, giving GOP candidates less time to fight among themselves and more time to focus on fundraising and campaigning for the general election.
"What we're trying to do is protect our candidates, our party, promote our brand, protect our platform, be true to the conservative principles of this party and make a difference," Priebus said.
But the attempt to limit intraparty squabbles could be difficult.
Among the other speakers at the Midwestern GOP conference was former presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who is considering another run at the White House in 2016. Santorum said he supports moving up the Republican National Convention but not limiting debates.
"I don't know how you put a cap on free speech, that's pretty much what you're suggesting," Santorum said. "I'm not particularly excited about the RNC sanction anyway. I don't see anything out of the RNC that makes me excited that they're going to do something to position themselves to put the most effective leader forward."
The internal GOP struggle is particularly highlighted by Missouri, where there has been division about when to hold the presidential primary, how to run the state party and what principles should define GOP candidates. After winning supermajorities in the state legislature but losing most executive offices in 2012, the Missouri State Republican Committee picked a new chairman in 2013.
Yet the party is still struggling with divisions. This past week, 15 House Republicans defected from the GOP's supermajority to uphold Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto of an income tax cut that had been the top priority of Republican legislative leaders. Some Republican-aligned groups are now talking about backing challengers to those lawmakers in the 2014 primaries.
On Saturday, Missouri's GOP committee proposed to require future candidates to sign a loyalty statement, saying: "I have read, understand and fundamentally support the platform of the Missouri Republican Party." Some suggested that tax cuts should be a central philosophical belief for Republicans.
"We're going to have to find our soul in the next election cycle," said Republican consultant Jeff Roe, who was at the conference.
The head of the Kansas Republican Party, meanwhile, boldly predicted that it would build on its dominance. Chairman Kelly Arnold noted that the GOP already holds the top offices on the ballot in Kansas, as well as 92 of the 125 state House seats, 32 of the 40 state Senate seats and 82 percent of all county offices.
Arnold said he was excited about the direction of the national party, particularly its plans to embed year-round staff in every state. He set a high goal for future Kansas elections: "Delivering a knockout punch to the Democratic Party."