In years past, if you were a Republican seeking the GOP presidential nomination, the state of North Carolina wasn't too high on your list of states to target. The Tar Heel primary has traditionally been held in May, at which point there already was (usually) a presumptive nominee. And, at least until 2008, the state was regarded as safely red for the general election.
This year, however, the low priority of North Carolina for challengers for the Republican nomination looks to be changing, as state legislators are putting the finishing touches on a plan to push the state's presidential primary to March 15th:
North Carolina could become a key state by setting its primary date to March 15. Legislation – known as House Bill 373, or the 2016 Presidential Primary bill – would do just that. Last week, the state Senate passed the bill and sent it back to the House for concurrence.
Picking that date would allow North Carolina to be a winner-take-all state under new RNC selection rules:
In 2014, the RNC approved selection rules that govern how each state’s delegates are portioned out from the primaries. Under one of the changes, states holding their primaries between March 1 and March 14 will have their delegates doled out proportionately with election results, a change that will likely stymie a movement candidate.
States that have primaries on or after March 15 will be winner-take-all states.
Which in turn makes North Carolina's primary a big deal, especially to candidates like Kentucky Senator Rand Paul and Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker:
March is full of big primary states packed with delegates, but three of the biggest have hometown candidates that could take those states off the map: Ohio's governor John Kasich just joined the race, Florida has Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio, and Texas has Rick Perry and Ted Cruz all claiming support back home.
That leaves North Carolina as the biggest primary prize in March: 72 delegates will be at stake in a winner-take-all contest
With this in mind, it isn't a surprise to read reports of 'behind the scenes' attempts at maneuvering the state's presidential primary by supporters from both the Walker and Paul camps:
Supporters of Scott Walker and Rand Paul have been jockeying behind the scenes for months to establish a North Carolina primary date that favors their preferred candidate. While Paul supporters weren't banking on the Kentucky senator winning the state, they had hoped to make the state's primary proportional, giving him a chance to nab some of its delegates.
Could Walker's message resonate in North Carolina? To a certain extent it already has, considering he's already gained supporters in the Tar Heel state thanks to victories against Democrats in Wisconsin on hot-button battles. The North Carolina Republican party has fought similar fights on issues like voter ID and unions:
North Carolina might seem an unusual cultural fit for the Wisconsin governor as he plots his nomination strategy, but Republicans in the state say his appeal is rooted in his tough-minded approach to the slashing the state budget in Madison.
The high-profile battles over union benefits and voter ID laws during Walker's first term beginning in 2010 mirrored similar fights in North Carolina, and won Walker fans down south.
The most recent polling numbers show high-profile businessman/investor/TV personality Donald Trump currently leading in the state, but also have Walker within reach. It's early on, though - still plenty of time between now and March 15, 2016 for all candidates to visit the state to try and make their mark.
That said, with supporters of Walker and the Trump camp now both trading barbs with each other, it may be time for GOP voters in North Carolina to fasten their seat belts - and grab the popcorn.