On the trail: The battle for New Hampshire’s other primary in the spotlight

  • Voting in Peterborough for the New Hampshire primary on Tuesday, Feb. 11, 2020. Staff photo by Ben Conant

  • N.H. Secretary of State Bill Gardner spoke against moving the primary from September to June saying that it may lower voter participation. AP file

For the Monitor
Published: 4/9/2021 4:03:57 PM

New Hampshire is known nationally for its century old tradition of holding the first presidential primary in the race for the White House.

Less well known is that the Granite State holds one of the last primaries for U.S. House and Senate, governor, Executive Council, and state legislative offices.

For over a century, New Hampshire has held its state primary in September. It’s one of only four states that still hold their contests in September, with the other 46 conducting their primaries earlier in the year.

A bill that passed the New Hampshire House of Representatives Thursday by a 195-174 vote would move the longstanding date of the state primary from the second Tuesday in September to the fourth Tuesday in June. That would expand the current seven- to eight-week sprint between the state primary and the November general election to a roughly 19- to 20-week period.

Longtime New Hampshire-based GOP consultant Mike Biundo said the current quick turnaround between the state primary and the general election has long “given incumbents an unfair advantage.”

“Having the primary go earlier, I think, it’s going to level the playing field. I think it’s good for the state and for both parties,” Biundo, a veteran of numerous Republican presidential and down ballot campaigns, told the Monitor.

On the other side of the political fence, veteran Democratic strategist Chris Moyer, who served as communications director for 2018 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Molly Kelly, agreed.

“The late primary in New Hampshire always helps the incumbent and a longer general election would allow more time for the challenger to replenish the fundraising coffers and more time to raise their name ID and make the case as to why the incumbent should be ousted from the job,” Moyer said.

The bill – which passed the GOP controlled state House mostly along party lines – would also move up the filing period for federal, state, and county elections from the final Wednesday in May to the fourth Wednesday in April.

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll from February indicated that 86% of Granite Staters said that changing the date would make no difference on whether they would vote in the primary.

Longtime Secretary of State William Gardner opposes moving the date of the state primary, telling the Monitor on Friday that holding the primary in late June, when many people are entering a summertime frame of mind and starting to take vacations and travel, would hurt turnout compared to the current date after Labor Day, when most voters are back at work or school.

Gardner pointed to Maine – which along with New Hampshire has high general election turnouts in November. New Hampshire’s September state primary averages around 20% turnout, which is much higher than turnout for Maine’s June primary, Gardner said.

He also noted that with New Hampshire having two-year terms for governor, the Executive Council, and the Legislature, “we’re in election mode long enough as it is now. Why would we want it to be even longer.”

State House Democrats opposed the measure, saying it needed more work. They pointed – among other things – to the moving up of the timetable causing headaches for supervisors of the checklist across the state and conflicts with town meeting elections that are held each year on the second Tuesday in March.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu also opposed changing the primary date.

“I think the system we have in place is phenomenal. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” he told reporters on Thursday.

The bill now heads to the state Senate, where it will face an uncertain future once it’s taken up in a couple of weeks.

While the GOP holds the majority in both houses of the General Court, unlike their House colleagues, Senate Republicans are much more in-line with Sununu.

The House Republicans’ support for the bill moving the state primary up to June in the face of Gardner’s opposition stands in contrast to the current push by the New Hampshire Republican State Committee to target the state’s all-Democratic congressional delegation over a sweeping election and campaign finance reform bill being pushed by congressional Democrats.

Gardner opposes that bill too – which passed the Democratic controlled U.S. House along party lines – because it would give the federal government much more authority over how states run their elections – and he’s argued it could threaten New Hampshire’s treasured first-in-the-nation presidential primary.

The NHGOP’s used Gardner’s comments to take aim the state’s congressional delegation, claiming that they’re not taking into account the secretary of state opposition to the bill, and not standing up to protect New Hampshire’s presidential primary.

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