New Hampshire Democrats in a ‘bind’ over primary election move
New Hampshire Democrats are increasingly at odds with the Democratic National Committee after the organization knocked the Granite State from its perch as the first primary state over the weekend.
The new calendar bumps Iowa, which holds caucuses, out of its spot as the first-in-the-nation presidential contest, replacing it with South Carolina on Feb. 3. New Hampshire, which was the first state to hold a primary in the presidential contest, is expected to hold its contest three days later, along with Nevada.
But New Hampshire Democrats say they will still go first, despite the DNC vote, citing state law that says it must hold first-in-the-nation primary status.
“We really are in a bind,” said one New Hampshire-based Democratic operative. “The narrative has been painted that New Hampshire Democrats are just being really difficult, and as much as I would really like for that to be true and that now that we don’t get our way we just cave, we can’t. It’s the law.”
That has led to a call from outside of New Hampshire to call for penalties against the Granite State if the state party doesn’t abide by the new calendar.
Following the vote on Saturday, former top political strategist to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.) Rebecca Lambe published a memo calling on the DNC “to impose and enforce severe penalties on states and candidates who do not honor the rules as adopted.”
New Hampshire has been the first primary election in the nation since 1920, following the Iowa Caucuses, in presidential contests. Supporters of New Hampshire going first argue that the state’s small size allows candidates to better take part in retail politicking and gives underdog candidates a fair shot. The state’s backers also point to its engaged electorate and the strong independent voters’ presence.
But since 2006, when Nevada and South Carolina were moved up in the Democratic primary calendar, there has been a movement to push the two states even further up the calendar, in part, because proponents say they offer a better demographic representation of the party and the country.
“The voters of South Carolina not only reflect the diversity of the Democratic Party but they tended to correct things that had occurred in the opening primaries and caucuses in a way that were more reflective of the subsequent primaries and caucuses,” said former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, the last Democrat to hold the post.
This dynamic played out clearly in 2020, when then-candidate Biden left New Hampshire prior to primary night to travel to South Carolina, which propelled him to the nomination.
Hodges also points out the situation will be much more of a concern in 2028, when there’s likely to be an open field in the Democratic presidential race.
Granite State Democrats are showing no signs of giving up their position.
“Well, New Hampshire is going to be first,” Ray Buckley, chair of the state’s Democratic Party, told The Hill when asked about his reaction to the vote.
But proponents of the new calendar argue that New Hampshire technically has not been moved because for decades it’s taken place after the Iowa Caucuses. They also argue that no one state should have a monopoly over the presidential primary process.
“They have asked us to maintain their tradition and that is exactly what we’re doing — maintaining their tradition as the second in the nation contest but doing it in a way that elevates some other voices as well,” said Mo Elleithee, a member of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee.
The stalemate puts New Hampshire Democrats at odds with their national committee, which has the backing of President Biden in the calendar matter. Democrats in support of the calendar change have floated potential penalties New Hampshire could face if it leapfrogs South Carolina.
The DNC has pulled delegates to states who have jumped their place in the calendar. In 2008, the committee refused to seat half of Florida and Michigan’s delegates after they moved their primaries forward without approval.
However, Democrats say that this time around, penalties could be more severe for states that jump the calendar.
“Any candidate who campaigns in a state that jumps the line will face their own penalties,” Elleithee said.
Elleithee added that the DNC has a definition of campaigning, which includes a candidate putting their name on the ballot in a given state.
“It could be anything from denying some delegates to the candidate to access to certain resources, access to the debate stage. All of those are on the table,” he said.
But the situation puts New Hampshire and the DNC in uncharted territory, given that it is state law in New Hampshire for its primary to be first in the nation.
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu (New Hampshire) has given no indication that he would move to change that.
“Our primary will still be first and the nation will not be held to a substandard process dictated by Joe Biden and the Democrat Party,” Sununu said late last year.
Supporters of the calendar change say that New Hampshire not following the DNC’s rules due to its own law could set a negative precedent going forward.
“If every state passed a law that said that they should be going first, then what would that say about our process?” said South Carolina-based Democratic strategist Antjuan Seawright.
Additionally, Democrats backing the calendar change say the state law is no excuse for New Hampshire Democrats to not comply.
“If I were a New Hampshire Democrat, rather than going to war with the DNC, I’d be going after the Republican establishment and saying, ‘Why are you jeopardizing our ability to stay in our rightful place?” Elleithee said. “Democrats have a long history of taking on state laws that prohibited more voices being a part of the process. They’ve had an opportunity here to follow that tradition and so I hope they take it. They’ve got several months.”
New Hampshire has until June 3 to change its primary date.
When asked whether he believed there was any room for negotiation on the calendar, Buckley said the DNC “must feel so since they asked to continue talking till June 3.”
“We look forward to working with them,” he added.
However, Buckley emphasized the need for the state party to get the ball rolling ahead of the 2024 presidential election.
“We still want to start organizing toward the general election of 2024 because that’s where our focus is,” Buckley said. “We will talk with the DNC, with the various other political committees in Washington, and the president’s campaign and say here’s what we need to do to be victorious on the November general election ballot.”
Other Democrats argue that New Hampshire’s strategy has more to do with posturing ahead of 2028, with Biden having stated he intends to run for a second term in 2024.
“I think in ‘24 it’s going to be a bit of an odd event because Biden would not campaign there if they had a primary,” Hodges said. “This really is a lot less about this time around and more sending a message about how aggressive New Hampshire and to some extent Iowa is going to be when it comes to the ‘28 primaries and caucuses.”
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