New Hampshire political leaders make case to DNC: Keep our first-in-the-nation primary

By: - June 24, 2022 6:30 am
State Sen. Donna Soucy, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and DNC committee member Joanne Dowdell sit before the DNC's Rules and Bylaws committee to defend New Hampshire's first in the nation presidential primary.

State Sen. Donna Soucy, New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley, Sen. Maggie Hassan, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and DNC committee member Joanne Dowdell sit before the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws committee to defend New Hampshire’s first in the nation presidential primary.

The New Hampshire Democrats filed in solemnly, armed with speeches to keep their party’s support and defend the state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. But first, they passed out goodie bags. 

As members of the Democratic National Committee’s powerful Rules and Bylaws Committee sat around long tables Wednesday evening, waiting to hear New Hampshire’s defense of its position, aides circled the room, passing out the gifts. Inside were mugs from the Red Arrow Diner, the iconic campaign stop; a wooden egg from the New Hampshire Institute of Politics’ “Politics and Eggs” events at St. Anselm College; maple syrup containers and chocolate from Granite State Chocolate Co.

It was a nod to tradition and nostalgia as the New Hampshire primary faced its latest test. And for many in the Washington, D.C., conference room, it sparked their own memories of past campaigns. 

“I love New Hampshire,” said Donna Brazile, former DNC chairwoman and current Rules and Bylaws committee member. “Because what you lack in diversity, you’ve always made it up in common decency and civic engagement. Quite honestly, I own all of my winter coats because I’ve visited that state so many times.” 

But if tradition has held the state’s primary intact for more than 100 years, this year, it’s being tested. Facing national pressure to acknowledge the country’s diversifying demographics, the DNC is challenging the traditional early primary states like New Hampshire to defend how their state reflects that diversity. 

In a new process this year, the Rules and Bylaws Committee has opened up applications for states that want to be in the first five slots in the presidential primary calendar. Wednesday evening was New Hampshire’s turn. Fifteen other states and Puerto Rico are also vying for a top position.

And while committee members expressed fondness for the state’s historical role in that process, they also made clear that all potential changes remain on the table. 

And they brought up new concerns, from this year’s passage of a new “provisional ballot” law that critics say could slow down the primary counting process to the retirement of 42-year Secretary of State Bill Gardner in January. 

Many questioned why New Hampshire needed to be absolutely first. 

“I am a daughter of Dartmouth, and I spent a fair amount of time in New Hampshire,” said Leah Daughtry, a member from New York. But, Daughtry continued. “As the party is thinking about the diversity of our party, and how those first contests represent the broad depth and breadth of who is part of our party, I want to ask you to make the case for New Hampshire being first as opposed to New Hampshire being second. Or third. Does it make a material difference where you are in the early state lineup?”

In defending New Hampshire’s position, New Hampshire politicians – from Sen. Maggie Hassan to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to state Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy – brought out time-tested arguments.  

They appealed to history, noting that the state’s first presidential primary dated to 1916. They talked up the state’s “culture of civic participation and direct democracy,” arguing that Granite Staters have been well primed to vet candidates and buck national narratives. They lauded the voluntary nature of the state’s Legislature, and the constant, two-year election cycle for every state elected official that allows voters to deliver accountability.

New Hampshire’s advocates praised the state for its small size and fast highways, allowing candidates to zip to many of its furthest corners in less than two hours. Shaheen and Hassan pointed to the dominance of WMUR as the state’s only television news channel as a convenient vehicle for early advertising purchases. And they said the in-person, living-room-to-living-room nature of campaigning here allows first-time candidates without connections or deep pockets to defy the odds and pick up support. 

Hassan argued that voter-to-candidate scrutiny helps put key, personal issues onto candidates’ radar, allowing, for instance, people affected by the opioid crisis to speak to candidates directly. 

Meanwhile, the senators said the state’s pendulum swings between Democratic and Republican control in recent decades prove the state’s relevance too, and test candidates on their ability to connect to the general electorate. Hassan cited her last election, in 2016, which she won by 1,017 votes. New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley noted that control of the New Hampshire House – which Republicans wrested from Democrats in November 2020 – was decided in the last election by around 700 votes.

“New Hampshire is the very definition of a battleground state,” said Shaheen. “Our electorate is engaged, informed and free thinking.” 

And this year, New Hampshire leaders added another argument to their arsenal: A decision by the DNC to end New Hampshire’s first primary position could bring a backlash against New Hampshire Democrats in the upcoming elections, they said. The Republican National Committee voted in April to keep Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada as the first four states to vote, preserving New Hampshire as the first primary.

“We’re seeing a growing narrative that blames Democrats for jeopardizing New Hampshire’s first in the nation status,” Shaheen said. “With such a tight Senate race and newly redrawn congressional maps, I fear stripping New Hampshire of its long held position could be consequential.” 

But as they faced the committee, the New Hampshire representatives received some pointed questions. 

Brazile asked whether Gov. Chris Sununu’s signature of Senate Bill 418 – which requires new, unregistered voters to the state who forget their documents on Election Day to mail them to the Secretary of State within seven days or have their ballots discarded – could create any problems for the state’s vaunted open elections.

“You guys used to be the gold standard,” Brazile said. “And the Republicans are now trying to, you know, put restrictions on your same day registration.” 

Soucy responded that she believed that law would either be struck down by state courts or held up in an injunction before the 2024 presidential primaries. Two groups of plaintiffs have filed separate lawsuits in state superior court since Sununu signed the bill last Friday.

Another committee member, James Roosevelt of Massachusetts, asked whether Gardner’s departure as secretary of state could disrupt the primary process, particularly if the Legislature chooses a more ideological replacement in the next Secretary of State election in December.

“We are very concerned,” replied Buckley. ​​“And that’s why, you know, Senator Soucy is working overtime to regain her majority, her presidency of the Senate.”

Others inquired into New Hampshire’s state law requiring the secretary of state to set the presidential primary at least “seven days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election.” If the DNC allowed a state to stage a primary before New Hampshire, one member asked, how would the New Hampshire Democratic Party reconcile that decision?

Buckley paused, uncomfortable. “That’s a little bit like asking: Which sister do I want to keep alive?” he said.

He added “We don’t have the power to tell the secretary of state not to schedule the primary. So they’re going to schedule the primary. So we have to make the best of it. But wouldn’t we rather just not even have to deal with any of that?”

Then there were the questions of diversity. New Hampshire continues to be an overwhelmingly white state, with 87.2 percent of residents identifying as non-Hispanic white in the latest Census. On Wednesday, New Hampshire’s advocates pointed out that the state has seen an increase in diversity over the last 10 years; minority residents have increased from 7.5 percent after 2010 to 12.8 percent in 2020. 

New Hampshire’s representative on the Rules and Bylaws Committee, Joanne Dowdell, a Washington, D.C. resident who formerly lived in Portsmouth cited those demographic shifts to respond to concerns. And she said the ability for people of color to meet face to face with candidates given the state’s culture of retail politics meant that presidential candidates could still be tested on their ability to appeal to different communities. 

“The face of New Hampshire is changing,” Dowdell argued.

New Hampshire’s hour-long presentation is one of several the committee is hearing over Wednesday and Thursday. Representatives from Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, Oklahoma, Puerto Rico, South Carolina, Texas, and Washington are all making their own pitches for the top five slots, either as newcomers or incumbents.

As New Hampshire’s representatives left the room, the reception from their national counterparts appeared warm. But some committee members indicated they still have reservations.

“I thought they did a great job in their presentation,” said Maria Cardona, who represents Washington D.C., addressing  her fellow members. “But I still – the retail politics, the one-on-one, the making sure that every voter no matter where they’re from, or where they live, or what their background is, has the ability to ask a presidential candidate whatever they want on whatever policy – I don’t think that will change if one or two states go before New Hampshire.” 

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel. Email: [email protected]