Why Missouri Is Holding a 'Meaningless' Primary

Thanks to in-state political disputes and a slow-moving legislature, today's Missouri presidential primary has been reduced to an afterthought.

Most presidential candidates have ignored the contest, which will not affect any of the state's 52 GOP delegates. Newt Gingrich will not be on the ballot, having made no attempt to qualify. Anyone looking for competition between the race's two poll leaders should look elsewhere.

The state party, meanwhile, didn't even want the primary to happen.

That's because today's vote won't be the main event: Missouri will hold caucuses on March 17, where voters will begin the process of selecting and allocating delegates. Today's primary is a vestige of state law that Missouri's GOP-controlled legislature failed to change.

Consequently, Rick Santorum is the only presidential candidate paying much attention today.

"Now we have right here in Missouri, you have Rick Santorum versus Mitt Romney and we'll see how people will vote," Santorum told a crowd while campaigning in Hannibal, Mo., on Friday. Despite the primary's diminished significance, Santorum is betting on Missouri in the apparent hope that a win today will supply some momentum for his campaign.

To get here, Missouri traveled a circuitous road of partisan confusion, GOP discord, legislative slow-footedness, and dispute over money - the same dynamics that have motivated recent political stalemates on a national scale.

It's left some Republicans in the state unhappy.

"Stupidity," said state Sen. Kevin Engler, a Republican and the author of a bill to do away with today's primary, of the so-called "beauty contest" vote. " "It's the dumbest thing I've ever seen in my time in the legislature."

Missouri has traditionally held its presidential primary in the first week of February, but the Republican National Committee (RNC) told states in 2010 to hold their 2012 contests in March or later, except for four pre-approved early states that could vote in February. Some states violated the rule intentionally, while most others complied without fuss. But in Missouri, the primary election date is mandated by state law. With a Democrat in the governor's mansion, the process soon became complicated.

Missouri's GOP-controlled legislature tried to move today's primary date to comply with RNC rules. During its spring session, both houses voted to postpone the primary until March - moving to abide by the RNC's calendar and avoid the same penalty levied on New Hampshire, South Carolina, Florida, Arizona and Michigan.

But Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon vetoed the bill in July, expressing no concern over the changed date but citing other election provisions he deemed "unacceptable." For instance, the bill would have removed Nixon's power as governor to fill vacancies by appointment when statewide elected officials resign.

By that time, the state legislature was out of session. Republicans would complain that Nixon had not communicated with them at all. Had he made his problems known, Republican officials in Missouri now say, state legislators probably would have been willing to work with him and a compromise bill would have moved Missouri's election date.

The Missouri GOP faced an Oct. 1 deadline to notify the RNC of new primary-process rules.  When the state legislature reconvened for a special session in September, called to address an economic-development package, the state party lobbied Republican lawmakers to pass a new bill to change the primary date - this time, without the provisions to which Nixon objected.

Missouri's Republican lawmakers couldn't get it done.

The state House moved swiftly to pass a new bill, sending it to the Senate on Sept. 9, but the Senate never took up the bill. Quarreling with House Republicans over the contents of the economic-development package - in particular, whether or not certain state tax credits should contain spending caps and sunset dates - the Senate chose instead to work on other economic-policy bills. The Senate had quickly passed its version of the package, a GOP aide in the legislature told ABC News, and wanted to stick to the original purpose of the special session.

The state party emailed its supporters, asking them to prod their Republican senators to vote on the primary date.

Some Republican senators didn't like the state party's backup plan, to begin the delegate-allocation at March caucuses, which in the past have been used only to select delegates to the national convention, but not to allocate them to candidates. A handful of GOP state senators preferred instead to keep the Feb. 7 primary and suffer the RNC-imposed consequences, calculating that even with half the delegates at stake, a February primary would draw more national attention than a March caucus.

"We could have been the center of the universe," State Sen. Brad Lager, who was one of those discontented Republicans, told the Kansas City Star this week. "Talk about an incredible missed opportunity."

With the Oct. 1 deadline nearing, the state GOP finalized its plans to hold caucuses on March 17.

The state Senate finally voted on a modified bill - to do away with the primary entirely - on Oct. 17, well after the RNC's deadline. The bill failed in a tie vote.

State Sen. Engler noted that holding today's primary will cost the state $7 million, according to the secretary of state's office.

"We're cutting $500 million out of the budget, and we're going to fire 4,000 workers," Engler said of his colleagues' opposition. "They knew we were wasting money."

But Democrats will hold their presidential primary today, too, and doing away with the primary entirely could have forced them to adopt a caucus system. All of Missouri's eight Democratic senators voted against the bill; so did eight of its 26 Republicans. Missouri's Republican lietenant governor, who casts the tie-breaking vote in the state senate, was not present.

And here we are today, with Missouri holding a delegate-less primary, critics crying foul over the expense, and Santorum angling for a notch in the "W" column that could make his Tuesday night a bit more successful.