New Hampshire Dems Promise a Fight for First in the Nation Primary Spot

Ready to invoke what former New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner once dubbed “the nuclear option”—moving the primary to before Christmas—Granite State Democrats are pulling out all the stops to maintain their coveted status as the first-in-the-nation primary state.

“People here are really, really angry,” a New Hampshire presidential campaign veteran told The Daily Beast after the Democratic National Committee, backed by President Joe Biden, decided to award the first primary slot to South Carolina, adding that it’s “entirely possible the [New Hampshire] primary will be held in 2023.”

“Oh yeah, we’re gonna have it first,” said Neil Levesque, executive director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College. “We could have it before Christmas. The bigger story here is a candidate running for president is changing the calendar to align with his best interests.”

Even if the economic benefits of hosting the first primary are questionable, or that its importance only emerged after the chaos of the 1968 Democratic National Convention and then with the lore surrounding former President Jimmy Carter’s 1976 campaign, Granite Staters are ready to fight to keep it.

If that entails a battle with the White House, then so be it.

Levesque, an otherwise well-mannered figure in the primary and the host of the influential “Politics & Eggs” event frequented by candidates, went as far as accusing Biden of trying to “rig” the calendar in his favor.

“This is a move designed to rig the election, and I’m using a word that the previous administration used, but it’s a very similar type of action where you have someone in power who says we’re gonna have these things to our advantage to try and keep power,” Levesque said. “We saw Biden here. He didn’t come in second, he didn’t come in third, he didn’t come in fourth. He came in fifth.”

The congressional delegation and party brass have not shied away from petty retaliations, either.

Sens. Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan skipped the White House’s Congressional Ball on Monday night in protest of the Democratic National Committee’s decision, while New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley drew a line in the sand by calling first-in-the-nation status “not theirs to take away.”

The state of just over 1 million also has one card no other competitor can match: a law enshrining its presidential primary pole position in the state constitution.

“New Hampshire has a law that requires we hold our Presidential Primary at least seven days before any similar nominating event,” New Hampshire Secretary of State David Scanlon told The Daily Beast in a statement. “Our first-in-the-nation primary is part of our culture and has been in place for over 100 years. We will continue to follow the law and honor our tradition.”

For now, that means holding the primary in January 2024 before South Carolina is set to vote on February 2.

The sentiment from New Hampshire Democrats is teeing up an unusual and potentially litigious showdown between the state party and its senior, the Democratic National Committee, as Democrats prepare to embrace their new nominating order in 2024.

In earnest, New Hampshire was the first primary in the nation based on a technicality; Iowa went before New Hampshire, but Iowa had caucuses. That kept the sanctity of New Hampshire’s treasured law intact. But when Democrats sought to shake up their nominating order in order to diversify the voters who were leading Democrats’ contests, New Hampshire came under threat. They fought back early.

Jockeying with states like Nevada and Michigan to retain the first-in-the-nation status, New Hampshire pleaded its case for months to the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee. It touted its long history of presidential politicking, its conveniently small size, how Democrats’ investment in the state during presidential cycles buoyed Democratic candidates in the swing state.

But come time to vote, the DNC didn’t oblige. On the recommendation of President Biden, they opted for South Carolina to go first on Feb. 6, Nevada and New Hampshire to share Feb. 13, followed by Georgia on Feb. 20 and Michigan on Feb. 27.

Iowa, for the most part, went graciously. It was a long time coming for the Hawkeye State, which lacked the racial or geographic diversity national Democrats were looking for.

But New Hampshire is choosing guerrilla warfare.

“No president has ever done anything this brazen,” the Granite State presidential campaign journeyman said, specifically referring to alterations in the nominating process.

“You have a group of party bosses who have been told by the candidate—a candidate who is going to try and run in that election—where the election can take place and when it can take place. That’s rigging,” Levesque said, again adding that he does not use the term lightly.

The DNC will issue a final vote on the calendar in Philadelphia in February, 2023.

After decades of tensions with other states eyeing the first spot, the Granite Staters at the heart of the first-in-the-nation primary are now fully embracing a game of chicken with South Carolina and the DNC—and, by extension, the White House.

“The reality is, they’re never gonna be first,” the presidential campaign veteran said of South Carolina, requesting anonymity to discuss sensitive internal conversations. “The South Carolina Republicans control the state, and they’ve already agreed to the GOP calendar.”

The presidential campaign veteran compared the DNC’s decision to that of the Supreme Court in Bush v. Gore.

“When I saw that sentence in the president’s letter to the DNC—and interestingly, the calendar itself was not in the letter—the only other place I’ve ever seen saying this is not a precedent and only applies to this case and time was in the Bush v. Gore decision.”

“It appears to be a calendar written by somebody who has never run a presidential campaign,” they added, noting that the shared night with Nevada has been a particular sticking point among Granite State Democratic operatives.

“I don’t know what their thinking was,” JoAnn Fenton, a longtime activist, former New Hampshire delegate and highly influential donor bundler, told The Daily Beast. “I just think it’s short-sighted on their part.”

“We’re well informed voters,” she added. “We’re not as diverse as other states, but we’re diverse in a lot of other ways.”

To be sure, New Hampshire can’t just go willy-nilly as they please. The DNC can penalize states that go out of order by cutting their delegate totals in half and preventing candidates who campaign in the state from receiving the state’s delegates altogether—effectively making any trouble-making states untouchable.

The New Hampshire Democratic Party did not respond to a request for comment on their plan for if the DNC penalizes their delegate totals or other.

In South Carolina, meanwhile, Democrats are rejoicing at the recognition from party leaders. As a state that produced Democratic “kingmaker” Rep. James Clyburn and secured Biden’s victory in the 2020 Democratic nominating cycle, it’s a recognition of the role they’ve played—including with Black voters in particular.

Clyburn wrote in a statement that Biden’s recommendation was “responsive to the Democrats’ most loyal constituents, and that builds on his record of that last two years.” Clyburn also noted what many South Carolina Democrats have touted: South Carolina has urban and rural areas, varying industries, and relatively inexpensive media markets, boosting its accessibility for less cash-advanced candidates.

Still, South Carolina Democrats hear the criticism—they just think it’s bull.

“It’s disrespectful to the leader of the Free World and to the leader of our party, because this recommendation came from the president. Also, I think it’s a slap in the face to African-American voters, who have genuinely been the political booster cable that has kept this party charged up,” said Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina Democratic strategist and Clyburn advisor.

“It’s not like their primary got moved to June. It’s just a week later. What’s wrong with having African Americans at the top?,” Seawright added.

Now that Biden and the DNC can’t unshake the beehive, they’re in for a protracted fight, the Granite State presidential campaign veteran said, “because it’s so unprecedented and so out of left field.”

“This is gonna fester for a year, at least,” the campaign veteran said.

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