Memo to Republican presidential candidates: Qualifying for the Texas primary is a cakewalk.
The Texas GOP's State Republican Executive Committee has decided that candidates have to pony up just $5,000 — or produce 300 signatures from registered voters in each of 15 of Texas' 36 congressional districts — to qualify.
That means Texas should be a hotly contested March 1 primary for GOP candidates who survive February's early state primary and caucus contests in Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada — that is, if the candidate or his or her aligned super PAC can afford the sky-high TV advertising rates needed to play in giant Texas.
"Just because you’re on the ballot doesn’t mean you’ll be competitive," said Texas GOP consultant Matt Mackowiack.
Texas' low ballot threshold is not new, but the state's relevance in the GOP primary is, along with the sophistication of super PACs that can keep low-polling candidates on life support.
Not all states have such lenient ballot qualification policies. And the 2012 GOP nomination fight proved that a well-funded super PAC didn't always make up for disorganization on the ground. That year, four GOP candidates, including former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, did not qualify for Virginia’s primary, which required 10,000 signatures from registered voters, with at least 400 from each of Virginia’s 11 U.S. House districts.
The ballot access issue has already surfaced as a serious complication for at least one candidate: South Carolina’s high filing fee — $40,000 — was reportedly a contributing factor in Perry's decision to drop out of the race last week.
With such a huge GOP field — 16 since Perry left the race — some consultants are speculating that not every team will have the staffing or strategy to make the ballot in every state nominating contest.
But in Texas, where candidate filing runs from Nov. 14 to Dec. 14, the requirements should be a pretty easy lift.
Texans will go to the primary polls on what is known informally as “the SEC primary." On March 1, a slate of mostly southern states will host their presidential nominating contests, including Alabama, Arkansas, Colorado, Georgia, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Tennessee and tentatively, Vermont. Texas is the largest of the pack.
The primaries on this day are proportional, not winner-take-all — which makes them appealing to down-in-the-polls candidates. In Texas, most delegates are awarded by congressional district; if a presidential candidate clears 50 percent in a district, he or she wins three delegates. Otherwise, the delegates are awarded between the top two finishers in each district, meaning a candidate can pick up delegates even if they don't win the state.
"A larger ballot makes it more likely no one will win 50 percent of the vote in the congressional districts and that makes it more likely that more candidates will compete in Texas in the primary," said Mackowiak.
It's not just Texas Republicans who have low ballot-qualifying standards.
For a Democratic candidate to qualify, he or she must pay a $2,500 filing fee or gather 500 signatures. Also this year, the state party eliminated its ‘Texas Two-Step” caucus/primary hybrid system, in which delegates were awarded in a conventional primary, and then a fraction of delegates were awarded at caucuses after the primary. At the national level, Democrats put an end to the system earlier this summer, arguing that the old system "had the potential to confuse voters."