NH delegation vows primary fight isn't over

Feb. 4—New Hampshire's Congressional delegation struck a combative tone Saturday after the Democratic National Committee voted to make South Carolina its first-in-the-nation primary on Feb. 3, 2024, with New Hampshire and Nevada trailing three days later.

"The vote by the Democratic National Committee in Philadelphia is not the last word on the 2024 Presidential primary calendar," Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, Congresswoman Annie Kuster and Congressman Chris Pappas said in a statement from the New Hampshire Democratic Party. "No matter what party powerbrokers or those in Washington think, New Hampshire will once again host our first-in-the-nation contest as we have done for more than a century."

The Democrats' move, led by President Joe Biden and endorsed by the party's regulations and bylaws committee, was heralded as a way to encourage a greater early representation of Black and Latino voters, and reflect a newer, more diverse electorate.

While New Hampshire party leaders and voting members of the DNC said they championed that goal, they urged their fellow committee members to uphold the status quo. The national date change, they said, puts Granite State Democrats in a no-win situation because New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation primary status is ingrained in state law — and there is no political will to change it.

"No party committee gave New Hampshire the first-in-the-nation primary. Granite Staters created this process to put the power in voters' hands and give every candidate a fair shot, no matter their cash-on-hand or status within the party," the statement said.

"New Hampshire adds value to the nominating process, and while President Biden and the DNC continue to push a plan of political convenience, they will not be successful in the end. We will continue to work together as a delegation and with state leaders to protect the primary and make sure New Hampshire's law is followed," the delegation's release said.

"The DNC has put us in a no-win position," said Sen. Donna Soucy of Manchester, the Democratic leader of the New Hampshire state Senate and an early endorser of President Biden. Republicans have "a trifecta" with the governor's office and control of the State House and Senate, even if by a slim margin.

She said the change is disappointing also because of the state's robust participation in primaries compared with other states. New Hampshire boasted a greater than 70% turnout in 2020.

The DNC laid down two conditions for New Hampshire to participate in the party's early lineup of states, and demands they be met by June 3: abolish the law requiring the first in the nation primary, and institute no-fault absentee voting.

In 2021, every Republican in the state Senate voted against early absentee voting, Soucy said, and the DNC's primary shift will "make it harder, not easier" to change voting rights in the future.

"We shouldn't be punished in the state of New Hampshire for doing something we can't accomplish," Soucy told DNC members Saturday. "It will be reflected in our seats in the state legislature."

State Democratic Party chair Buckley said Republicans are already reaping political capital from the removal of first-in-the-nation status by the DNC. "It doesn't make sense to punish a state's Democratic ticket for something they can't control or change."

Buckley said after the DNC event via text, "We will work hard to diminish the DNC attacks and once again win independents. Fundraising will be robust."

Party stalwarts said it's too early to predict the true impact in New Hampshire, both on candidate fundraising or political support from independents.

"I wish I had a crystal ball," said retired state Sen. Peter Burling, a former DNC member who also served 14 years in the State House, and who called the motion and its potential political risk "very distressing. We've been doing this for more than 100 years. Why would we stop now? We're good at it. We're engaged."

The intense campaigning in a small state makes it easy for politicians to canvass, enables one-on-one interaction and conversations with presidential hopefuls, and gives voters an early look at the field.

"I'm not sure the DNC really thought this through very clearly," Burling said. "It would have been possible for them to get what they wanted without attacking New Hampshire's historic role."

He said a workable solution could easily have been to leave the Granite State first and put the Palmetto State three days later. "Including states with significantly higher diversity is to be honored and applauded, but I don't think taking New Hampshire out of (being first on) the list is a good idea."

Reduced financial support for Democrat candidates is "a valid concern," he said. In a state where 30% of voters are registered Democrat, 30% are Republican and 40% are unaffiliated, "Independents are key to winning. If they get the message that Democrats don't care, you could do terrible damage to our prospects."

The state's first-in-the-nation primary enables candidates and voters to identify issues that are important and start the conversations early, he said. The primary is "one of the engines that drives that."

State Rep. Sharon Nordgren, a Democratic organizer in the Upper Valley, said the only choice open to New Hampshire is to hold the primary when it's legal — before others occur, according to state law.

"The frustration is we're supporters of Joe Biden. But if he's not on the ballot here or chooses not to come, it's going to make it that much harder for local Democrats," Nordgren said. Presidential campaigns bring staff to candidates' offices. Volunteers have historically come from Vermont, Massachusetts and Maine to help New Hampshire Democrats with the primary, she said.

The actual impact of this change is anyone's guess, she said. "We won't know until it happens," said Nordgren. But it will likely affect the election process, and how many people choose the Democratic ballot in the presidential primary vote, she said.

"We haven't touched the surface of what this is going to do economically and politically. So many different facets of the election are going to be affected."

As a result of Saturday's vote, primaries in New Hampshire and Nevada would be held Feb. 6, with Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27.

At the DNC meeting Saturday in Philadelphia, national party chairman Jaime Harrison of South Carolina said the change in lineup of presidential nominating events "reflects the best of who we are as a party and a nation" and provides "a strong process for selecting the strongest nominee, and that's what it's all about."

Scott Brennan, a voting DNC member from Iowa, said the change creates "a situation off continued uncomfortability that will drag on through 2023." Iowa, which traditionally held its caucus a week before New Hampshire's primary, has been dropped from the lineup altogether.

Because Georgia and New Hampshire have until June 3 to comply with the national party's directive, "We leave here with nothing settled," Brennan said.

New Hampshire has been the nation's first primary since 1920.

"New Hampshire will still hold the first-in-the -nation primary whether the DNC approves or not," Buckley said at a press event on Friday.

"It is essential that we lift up diverse voices in our selection process," said Joanne Dowdell of Portsmouth, a DNC committee member at large. "But respecting our state law and lifting up diverse voices need not be mutually exclusive. The DNC is set to punish us despite the fact that we don't have the ability to unilaterally change state law.

"This will only hurt the president in our purple battleground state. This is not about New Hampshire history or pride," Dowdell said at the DNC meeting. "This is about state law."

At this point, repercussions for going ahead with New Hampshire's legal primary are unclear, and Buckley said no sanctions were discussed in committee.

"We will continue to work with the DNC in coming months to find a solution," Buckley stated in a text message. "There are many possible outcomes. A year is a lifetime in politics."