On the trail: Fighting to stay first in the nation

  • Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., left, and New Hampshire Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Maggie Hassan arrive for a campaign rally for Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, Thursday, Oct. 20, 2016, in Nashua, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

For the Monitor
Published: 4/2/2021 3:41:38 PM

Longtime New Hampshire Democratic powerbroker Bill Shaheen says he’s taking the latest threat to New Hampshire’s cherished century-old tradition of holding the first-in-the-nation presidential primary “very seriously.”

Shaheen, the well-known attorney and husband to Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, is one of the Granite State’s two committee members on the Democratic National Committee. He vowed in an interview with the Monitor to “fight as hard as we can” over the next couple of years to protect New Hampshire’s position in the party’s 2024 presidential nominating calendar.

With the initial steps now underway by the Democratic National Committee in determining the party’s next presidential nominating process, there's a new push to remove Iowa and New Hampshire from their positions as the first caucus state and first primary state.

Even though official meetings won’t begin until later this year, some senior party elders and leaders, as well as some DNC members, are quietly discussing making major changes to the party's presidential nominating calendar.

Among the ideas are pushing South Carolina and Nevada - which have much more diverse Democratic electorates than Iowa and New Hampshire – to the front of the primary and caucus calendar. Also under discussion are kicking off the process with multiple states holding contests on the same day, and phasing out the remaining caucuses in favor of primary elections.

Among those discussing such changes are former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina. Both are longtime rainmakers in the Democratic Party who have close ties to President Joe Biden, who will likely have the ultimate say in whether there are dramatic changes to the party's nominating calendar.

Biden, by the way, and Hillary Clinton four years earlier, were both beaten in New Hampshire’s Democratic Primary by Bernie Sanders.

Iowa, whose caucuses for half a century have kicked off the nominating calendar, has long faced criticism amid party circles that its lack of diversity should disqualify it as the leadoff contest. New Hampshire, which goes second in the calendar and for a century's held the first-in-the-nation presidential primary, has faced similar critiques.

Reid, who retired from the Senate at the beginning of 2017 after serving a dozen years as the chamber's Democratic leader, has been making waves since December that Nevada should leapfrog to the start of the nominating calendar.

Reid was instrumental in moving Nevada's caucuses in the 2008 cycle from an afterthought to the third position in the nominating calendar

"I don't think it's appropriate to have those two states to set the tone,” Reid told Politico, which was first to report on the private discussions. “It's really a false premise that if you do well in Iowa and New Hampshire you're going to do well across the country. That was proven wrong with Joe Biden. ... There's no diversity in Iowa. There's certainly no diversity in New Hampshire."

Bill Shaheen disagrees.

“New Hampshire did its part in this last primary…Our primary went off without a hitch,” he said. “We spotlighted certain young and upcoming Democrats like Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg… New Hampshire did was it was supposed to do. New Hampshire was never designed to pick the winner.”

Buttigieg finished second and Klobuchar third in the 2020 primary.

Biden came in a disappointing fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, before rebounding with a second-place finish – behind Sen. Bernie Sanders – in Nevada and a landslide victory in South Carolina. Clyburn's support in South Carolina, where Black voters make up a majority of the state's Democratic electorate, was instrumental in aiding Biden's powerful performance.

After sweeping victories in the coast-to-coast Super Tuesday contests three days later, much of the party rallied around Biden, and the former vice president locked up the nomination a month later, after Sanders dropped out of the race and endorsed Biden.

“New Hampshire points out the flaws in a campaign and that’s what we did with Joe Biden,” Shaheen emphasized. “We said ‘listen, you need to do this differently. You need to do that differently.’ And he took his lessons he learned in New Hampshire and applied them, and he became the president.”

“I think New Hampshire tested the mettle, showed that Joe Biden was tough and could take a punch and get up and keep running. We did our job,” he added.

Asked about the Granite State's lack of a diversity, Shaheen said that New Hampshire voters “give all candidates – regardless of their gender or the color of their skin – a fair shot.”

The state has long prided itself on its retail-style politics, which puts a premium on direct candidate to voter contacts through house parties and town halls, instead of large rallies and paid advertising. The format and the Granite State’s small size has over the generations provided a level playing to all White House hopefuls, regardless of their last name or the size of their campaign war chest.

Longtime New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley warned that holding multiple contests to kick off the nominating calendar "certainly would not allow a candidate who's not either a billionaire or a celebrity candidate to get their message out, because it would turn into a race about money and full of TV ads, not about the one-on-one conversations the voters deserve to have."

Both Reid and Clyburn have long been close to Biden.

The only major politician in New Hampshire that comes close to enjoying the same kind of longtime close ties with the president is former four-term Gov. John Lynch. Shaheen predicted that when the battle to protect the primary heats up, “John will be right on the forefront with us fighting for it.”

And he pledged that “we will use all the influence we can to support our position.”

NHGOP decries Dems ‘threat’ to primary

In a letter Friday sent to state Democratic lawmakers and to the state Democratic Party, the New Hampshire Republican Party took aim at the congressional Democrats sweeping election and campaign finance reform bill that longtime Secy. of State Bill Gardner has said threatens the presidential primary’s first-in-the-nation position.

In the letter, which was shared first with the Monitor, chair Steve Stepanek and vice chair Pam Tucker urged Democratic lawmakers that as “New Hampshire legislators you should fiercely defend our First-in-the-Nation Primary and oppose any threats - either from within New Hampshire, from other states, or our Federal Government - that put our Presidential Primary at risk.”

The letter spotlights comments made by Gardner in numerous interviews this week and in a statement that warn that if the congressional Democrats election bill – which would increase federal authority over elections – became law, it “could put our presidential primary in a perilous position.”

The federal bill recently passed the Democratic controlled U.S. House along party lines but now faces an uncertain future in the Senate, where the Democrats hold a perilous razor-thin majority.

The letter comes amid a full court press by national Republicans to defeat the Democrats’ bill – and it’s the latest push to put pressure on Democratic Sens. Shaheen and Maggie Hassan to oppose the bill and stand with New Hampshire.

Stepanek and Tucker called on State Democrats to make their opposition to the bill heard.

“Senator Hassan and Senator Shaheen would both heed your warnings if you were to speak out against this direct threat to New Hampshire,” Stepanek and Tucker said.

Shaheen and Hassan, as well as Democratic Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas – who voted for the measure in the House – highlighted this week that the legislation, formally known as the “For the People Act,” has nothing to do with the primary and caucus delegate selection calendar for 2024. They noted that it’s the national parties rather than the federal government that decide the Democratic and Republican presidential nominating calendars.

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