By Candice Leigh Helfand

TAMPA, Fla. (CBS TAMPA) – The Republican National Committee has elected to punish Florida, the very state holding its national convention later this year, for its decision to host primary elections earlier than it was allowed to do so.

The state’s primary will take place on Tuesday, Jan. 31, despite RNC requests for it to be held, at the very earliest, on March 6.

Kirsten Kukowski, press secretary for the RNC, said that in addition to breaking the rules, Florida’s change also started a trend.

“When Florida decided it wanted to … jump into January, you had other states like New Hampshire and South Carolina moving ahead, ” she told CBS Tampa.

She said that the rules were drafted after the last presidential election, when phenomenons such as Super Tuesday had the potential to keep states voting later from having the same relevance.

“In 2008, all the primaries were very front-loaded, and by the end of February, over 50 percent of delegates had already been allocated,” Kukowski said. “It was a concern with both the RNC and the (Democratic National Convention) to have more states take part in the process, so we put forward rules and laid out a calendar.”

Brian Hughes, communication director for the Republican Party of Florida, told CBS Tampa that primary dates are chosen by an appointed committee comprised of nine appointments made by the governor, the House speaker and the Senate president.

“The argument (made during committee meetings) for the date change was that Florida is the fourth largest state in the nation, the largest swing state, and arguably the most important state in the general election, given recent presidential (election) results,” Hughes said. “The case was made by proponents that Florida deserved a date of its own, a date early enough to reflect its importance.”

The committee met twice last fall to agree upon the Jan. 31 date for Florida.

The rules dictated by the RNC were that no one could go before February, and that apart from Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, no one could go before March 6.

“If a state went April 1 or after, they could have winner-take-all (delegates) if they wanted, or proportional,” Kukowski noted, adding that the punishment for those who opted to schedule primaries outside of the predetermined schedule would be subject to losing half of their appointed delegates.

Florida will have to give up several perks, in addition to losing  50 of its approximate 100 delegates, such as loss of priority seating and hotel access.

Kukowski said that Florida was reprimanded moreso than others for what was perceived to be the starting of a “domino effect.”

“We had gotten word that … everyone was going within the window (before Florida set their Jan. 31 date),” she explained.

The punishments were reportedly anticipated, and Hughes told CBS Tampa that the limitation on delegates is not necessarily harmful to the state, due to their 50-delegate winner-take-all policy.

The other offending states – Arizona, South Carolina, Michigan, and New Hampshire – were also penalized.

Additionally, this is not the first time Florida has weighed in early on presidential primaries.

Chris Cate, who serves as communication director for the Department of State which oversees the Division of Elections in Florida, noted that the state has hosted early primaries in the past.

“Our primary was on Jan. 31 in 2008 as well, I believe, and they may have punished us then also,” he told CBS Tampa.

He added that early voting is set to begin Monday, Jan. 16, in five counties. The other 62 counties in the state will begin early voting on Saturday, Jan. 21.

According to Kukowski, there was ample time to plan ahead for a working primary schedule that adhered to the rules.

“The rules were passed by the committee in August of 2010,” she said. “There was enough time for everyone to get everything together.”


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