TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) – Florida's winner-take-all Republican presidential primary was supposed to help former Gov. Jeb Bush or Sen. Marco Rubio.
That was the thinking when the GOP-dominated Legislature changed the state's primary date to the third Tuesday in March — the earliest date it could hold an election that will award all 99 Republican delegates to one candidate.
But that was before Republicans here even dreamed of – or had nightmares about – businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump possibly winning the state. It was before Bush went from front-runner to dropout and Rubio began losing whatever momentum he had after poor debate performances. Now the very plan to wrap up the nomination for a favorite son could be the one that kills his campaign.
"There's no question that the decisions that were made were made to benefit the two main Florida sons — Bush and Rubio," said Joe Gruters, vice chair of the Republican Party of Florida and co-chair of Trump's Florida campaign. "I'm sure they weren't expecting the Trump movement to be so strong. This is exactly the opposite of what they wanted. Instead of giving a crushing blow to everybody else, it's delivering a crushing blow to the very people it was meant to help the most."
Florida defied the national GOP in 2008 and 2012 and held its presidential primary on the last Tuesday in January in an effort to push its candidate of choice forward before most other states voted. It worked. Florida helped propel Sen. John McCain and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney to nomination in those years.
But Florida was faced with losing all its delegates if it broke national party rules again, and in 2013 the Legislature moved the primary date to the first Tuesday in March. Last year, as Rubio and Bush were preparing to run, the Legislature voted to move the date again to make the contest winner-take-all, which the state GOP approved after Gov. Rick Scott signed the bill into law.
Not everyone thought it was a good idea, including the Florida Federation of Republican Women.
"The Republican women had looked at trying to do the delegates by congressional district, and we were just told there wasn't even a starter on that conversation," said Cynthia Henderson, the group's past president. "I was told from very high up that we were not talking about that."
But she also said, with a sigh and a big roll of her eyes, that it might not matter at this point because of Trump's lead in the race.
"My guy's not in it, so I don't care who wins," said Henderson, who was supporting Bush.
Gruters pointed out that Trump, who has a home in Palm Beach and several business ventures here, is hardly an outsider in the state.
"Donald Trump is basically a Floridian. He's spent so much time here, he's invested tens of millions of dollars in properties, he's employed thousands of people. He laid the groundwork early when you think about him going to local GOP dinners since 2012," Gruters said. "He's really done what's necessary to win Florida."
The winner-take-all GOP primary has some Democrats snickering at the possibility of a Trump victory that would push Rubio out of the race. The Democratic primary between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders will award delegates proportionally.
"Republicans in the Legislature have effectively knee-capped Rubio's chances of obtaining the nomination and they have no one to blame but themselves. Yet again, Republican legislative chicanery has backfired to their very public embarrassment," said Florida Democratic Party spokesman Max Steele. "We eagerly await the strong, vocal support Florida Republicans will offer their party's standard-bearer, Donald Trump."