Ahead of DNC meeting, tensions mount over New Hampshire’s political future
A supporter of Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden picks a campaign sign up off of the ground outside of a polling place at Webster School on Feb. 11, 2020, in Manchester. (Scott Olson | Getty Images)
When members of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee voted in December to propose a new calendar for the party’s presidential primary lineup – one that replaced New Hampshire with South Carolina as the host of the first-in-the-nation primary – many national Democrats saw a chance for progress.
“This calendar does what is long overdue: It expands the number of voices in the early window, and at the same time it elevates diverse communities,” said Jaime Harrison, the chairman of the DNC, last week.
But New Hampshire Democrats have not welcomed the change, responding with final pleas to keep New Hampshire’s spot, vows to hold the primary first anyway, and threats to withhold support from President Joe Biden’s reelection campaign if the calendar is approved.
This week, DNC members from around the country will meet in Philadelphia to decide whether to formally accept that new calendar. If recent public discussions are any guide, there is little interest in further negotiation.
A testy Rules and Bylaws meeting last week illustrated two forces that appear unlikely to change: The DNC is poised to push New Hampshire back in its primary lineup, and New Hampshire is poised to move ahead and hold its primary anyway. Both sides appear exasperated.
“I am a little bit frustrated to hear folks in New Hampshire’s Democratic establishment sounding more like the Republican governor publicly,” said Mo Elleithee during the Jan. 25 meeting.
Lee Saunders, another committee member, agreed. “It doesn’t help organizing and mobilizing our communities across the country to have this divisiveness shared in public. We should never talk like that within the DNC.”
The members were reacting to a series of responses from New Hampshire Democrats in the two months since the Rules and Bylaws Committee voted to put South Carolina first. As a condition of joining Nevada in the second spot, New Hampshire would be required to change its voting laws to expand absentee voting or else be pushed back in the lineup to March, well behind the early states.
On Jan. 5, a number of New Hampshire political leaders – from Republican Gov. Chris Sununu to House Majority Leader Jason Osborne, an Auburn Republican, to Senate Democratic Leader Donna Soucy – sent letters indicating that the DNC’s demands would not be met. Some were sharply worded.
On Jan. 18, prominent New Hampshire Democrats, including former Gov. John Lynch, penned a letter to Biden urging him to reconsider the calendar and warning it could affect his reelection campaign.
And this month, former New Hampshire House Speaker Steve Shurtleff told WMUR that he would vote for another candidate for president if New Hampshire lost its primary spot.
“I’ll look for another candidate before I support Joe Biden if he should go so far as to take away the first-in-the-nation primary from the Granite State,” Shurtleff said.
The comments touched a nerve. At the Jan. 25 meeting, Saunders said he found the comments from New Hampshire “disturbing.”
“I appreciate and understand differences of opinions. We have it all the time within our union. But we also come to agreement when the time comes.”
Leah Daughtry, another member, said she was “shocked” by claims that the change in the calendar had come as a surprise.
“This has been an ongoing conversation for this committee – through I don’t know how many meetings – that New Hampshire’s status, like Iowa’s status, was up for discussion,” she said.
The irritation highlights a disconnect between national and Granite State Democrats. DNC members believe there can still be an outcome where New Hampshire embraces a second-place position that elevates more diverse voting bases in South Carolina and Nevada. New Hampshire Democrats don’t see a happy ending in any scenario that does not keep the state first. The disconnect could play out in Philadelphia this week.
Speaking to her fellow Rules and Bylaws Committee members, Joanne Dowdell, New Hampshire’s party delegate, made the traditional pitch for New Hampshire’s first position: New Hampshire is a small state with discerning voters where any candidate can compete regardless of wealth or connections.
“Retaining the New Hampshire primary as the first primary is not merely an argument to adhere to a century-long legacy,” she said. “It is because during that period of time, we have cultivated a process and created an atmosphere that is uniquely positioned to host the kind of contest that makes all politics – even the race for president – local.”
She said she supports elevating more diverse states to start the primary calendar, but said that could be done while keeping New Hampshire at the start. The early primary window, Dowdell argued, should tell the story of not just one group of voters, but rather “the broader story of our party.”
But Dowdell also used her time to push back on the committee’s proposed conditions to allow New Hampshire to go second. One of those conditions is the repeal of the 1975 law that requires the New Hampshire secretary of state to schedule New Hampshire’s Democratic and Republican primaries before any other state. The other is the expansion of absentee voting.
Both mandates are nonstarters in the Republican-led State House, Dowdell said. And the state’s law means that the Democratic presidential primary will be held just as early as the Republican one, Dowdell added.
Dowdell also issued warnings to the national party: Should the full DNC attempt to end New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, Biden could see a dip in support in the Granite State.
And should Biden try to skip campaigning in New Hampshire as punishment for an unsanctioned primary in 2024, he could miss out on critical infrastructure in the general election, Dowdell said.
“New Hampshire was proud to deliver our four electoral votes to the president on election night,” Dowdell said, referring to the general election. “These four votes could be the deciding factor in 2024. Unfortunately, they could now be at risk.”
Dowdell emphasized her support of Biden and her appreciation for his first term, but she said the new primary calendar is a risk.
“It is safe to say that … this is not how any of us would like to kick off a reelection campaign,” she said. “And given everything that is at stake, it is in everyone’s interest to find a mutually agreeable solution that meets the president’s and the DNC’s goals without punishing New Hampshire because of our state law.”
Democrats from outside of the Granite State voiced a different perspective.
Daughtry argued that New Hampshire was clamoring to keep a 100-year-old “privilege,” an effort that could be seen as insensitive to many Black Americans who had not had easy access to voting until the Civil Rights movement. And she said the existence of a state law should not have bearing over the decisions of the DNC.
“If all 56 state parties are going to pass a law so that ‘we can be first,’ we’re just going to have the wild, wild West,” she said, referring to the 50 states, Washington, D.C., and five U.S. territories.
And Elleithee said that the new calendar ensured that the DNC was “not going to be held hostage by history.”
National Democrats also took pains to praise New Hampshire’s historic role. Elleithee called the state “one of the most magical places to do politics,” and said that he saw compelling reasons to keep New Hampshire in the early window, if not first in line.
But Elleithee argued that New Hampshire’s “first-in-the-nation” status was “a bit of a fallacy.” The Granite State had always followed Iowa in the calendar, he noted. With the new proposed primary calendar, New Hampshire was still in the second week.
“I understand Iowa is a caucus and New Hampshire as a primary, and New Hampshire state law says they need to be the first contest of its kind,” he said. “But let’s be real … it has been viewed as the second-in-the-nation contest.”
The proposed primary calendar – championed by Biden – gave New Hampshire a chance to stay in that second place if it changed its state laws, Elleithee argued.
“We have maintained the tradition that New Hampshire has asked us to maintain,” he said.
Dowdell was not convinced. As the meeting wound up, she asked what the punishment would be if New Hampshire held an unsanctioned primary. Would the national party remove the state’s primary delegates? Would Biden cease campaigning? How would the state party transition from a rogue presidential primary to a general election campaign.
“My concern is … what does the path look like going forward?” she said. “And we haven’t had that discussion. … We haven’t had that conversation and I think the implications are real.”
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