“One of the biggest questions I get when I am knocking on doors is, ‘There is an April 3 primary?’ ” said Shapiro, an at-large candidate for the D.C. Council.
For decades, the District has held primaries for mayor, council and Congress in September. But in one of the biggest changes to local campaigning since home rule, the city’s Democratic and Republican primaries will be held April 3 to make sure the District complies with new federal requirements that absentee ballots be mailed overseas at least 45 days before the general election to give soldiers and expats time to mail them back.
For candidates, operatives and voters, the shift is upending the political culture of a city that for decades conducted campaigns as flowers withered in summer heat, not before many had even bloomed.
With many voters unaware primaries are weeks away, candidates are struggling to raise money and identify supporters for a race that is often tantamount to a general election, since three out of four city voters are Democrats.
Candidates and observers say the District’s new election cycle strengthens the hand of incumbents, despite a federal investigation of the 2010 campaign of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) and an inquiry that led to the resignation of D.C. Council member Harry Thomas Jr. (D-Ward 5).
“It’s definitely a detriment to the challengers,” said Skolnik, a Democrat who is challenging council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4). “I’m not making excuses, but it’s definitely a tougher calendar. . . . It’s way too early. . . . When we go around campaigning, people are like, ‘Why are you campaigning?’ ”
With many council seats up for reelection, there are contested primaries for the Democratic nomination in Wards 4, 7 and 8. Council member Vincent B. Orange (D) faces a primary challenger for an at-large seat. And there is a contested Republican primary for the Ward 7 council seat. (Council member Jack Evans [D-Ward 2] and Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton [D] are unopposed in their primaries.)
When the primaries were held in September, candidates didn’t have to file to run for office until early June.
They then had about six weeks to gather thousands of signatures to qualify for the ballot — an easier task in warm weather when residents gather on porches or in parks. Once they qualified for the ballot, candidates would campaign late into the evening at August festivals, the first day of school and Labor Day.
But the new primary schedule required that candidates pick up nominating petitions in mid-November. They had until Jan. 4 to turn them in.