On the Trail: Defending N.H.’s first in the nation primary

  • Concord city worker Ed Bisson sets up the voting booths at Ward 8 at the Bektash Shrine Center on Pembroke Road in Concord on Friday morning, September 4, 2020 in anticipation of Tuesday's primary voting. GEOFF FORESTER

For the Monitor
Published: 12/24/2020 10:56:56 AM

The 2020 presidential election isn’t completely over until a joint session of Congress on Jan. 5 formally certifies the Electoral College results, but the fight over the Democratic nominating calendar in the 2024 presidential cycle is already underway.

As it happens every four years, New Hampshire will have to defend its century-old tradition as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state.

The latest potential threat comes from former longtime Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada, who served for eight years as Senate majority leader. Reid, who at 81 remains very influential in Nevada and in the national Democratic Party, was instrumental in moving his state’s caucuses in 2008 from an afterthought to third position in the Democratic presidential nominating calendar, following Iowa’s caucuses and New Hampshire’s primary and ahead of South Carolina’s primary.

Now, Reid would like to see Nevada move to the lead off position.

“I think we’re entitled to be the first state. Why? Because the power structure of this country is moving west,” Reid said this week in an interview in the Los Angeles Times that quickly grabbed the attention of plenty of people in New Hampshire and Iowa.

Reid said that he intends to ask his longtime friend and former Senate colleague – President-elect Joe Biden – to help move Nevada up in the calendar. As the next president, Biden is the leader of the Democratic Party and will be instrumental in choosing the next chair of the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Reid added that he’s already discussed his ideas with those close to Biden and with the DNC, which will make a final decision on the 2024 nominating calendar in the summer of 2022.

While a longtime state law mandates that New Hampshire’s primary be held a week ahead of any similar election, the national political parties have increasingly held the power to dictate the presidential nominating calendars.

Leading New Hampshire Democrats are getting ready for the fight ahead.

“Anytime anyone comes after New Hampshire, we take it seriously and we prepare and we will do so in the coming years as we have every four years, working together with Bill Gardner and the Republican Party and our friends across the country on the DNC,” longtime state Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley told the Monitor.

Buckley remained optimistic.

“We will, I think, successfully save the primary again, but it takes a lot of time, work, and relationships and at the end of the day, we can do it again,” Buckley said.

The knock against Iowa and New Hampshire for years has been that the states are too Caucasian, lack any major urban areas, and aren’t representative of a Democratic Party that’s become increasingly diverse over the past several decades.

Iowa faces an ever tougher plight. The state is dealing with the aftermath of the meltdown in the reporting of the results 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses. The debacle in early February became a national and international story and it was an embarrassment for Iowa Democrats. It also raised concerns that the Iowa caucuses could lose their spot leading the calendar.

There’s been an anti-caucus sentiment by many in the party following the Iowa controversy.

Outgoing Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said in August that the party should phase out caucuses. “I think by 2024, we ought to have everyone being a primary state,” he told the AP during the Democratic National Convention. And Reid in his interview, agreed that it was time to convert the remaining caucus states to primaries.

The decision on the nominating calendar will be influenced by Biden and by who he supports for the next national party chair.

Biden came in a disappointing four in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in New Hampshire’s primary, before rebounding when the electorate turned more diverse. The former vice president scored a second place finish in Nevada’s caucuses. A landslide victory in South Carolina’s primary the next week, followed days later by sweeping victories from coast to coast in most of the Super Tuesday contests that launched Biden towards locking up the Democratic presidential nomination.

Reid, while making waves, did say that he wouldn’t jeopardize his state’s current third slot just to be first. “I’d love to be the first, but I’m not going to stab myself in the heart just hanging on to that if it can’t be done,” he said.

Buckley’s hoping that the early states stick together.

“The four early states have an agreement to support one another and we continue to be part of that alliance,” he noted. “We think that all four states bring a balance to the nominating process. We hope that at the end of the day the members of the DNC will agree.”

The next DNC chair

The DNC will formally elect its new chair the day after Biden’s inaugurated.

The national party will hold its Winter Meeting on Jan. 21, and the annual gathering will be held virtually this time amid the coronavirus pandemic. The top item on the agenda at the meeting will be electing new national  party leadership. Outgoing chair Tom Perez said long ago that he wasn’t seeking another four-year term.

While DNC committee members will vote, the real decision maker in choosing the next chair is Biden.

"It’s ultimately President Biden’s choice," Buckley noted.

Biden – at least publicly – has yet to make his views known on whom he’d like to see steering the national party.

There are no official candidates yet, but attention is falling on 2020 South Carolina Democratic Senate nominee Jaimie Harrison. The former state party chair told the Washington Post last month that "if that's something  that they are interested in me doing, I'll definitely take a good look." 

Harrison grabbed national attention this year as he shattered Senate fundraising records in his unsuccessful bid to oust longtime Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, a strong ally of President Trump.

"Jaime really fits the bill. You’re not hearing a lot of pushback on the idea of Jaime because he’s so well known. He did a fantastic job as state chair and has done a great job as an associate chair of the DNC the last four years," noted Buckley.

Buckley, who for years served as president of the Association of State Democratic Chairs, offered that Harrison "certainly understands and appreciates the value of a strong state party. His commitment to building the party from the grassroots up is sincere. He’s been there and that’s something that’s important to a lot of us, that someone with state and local experience the national party."

Sununu’s 2022 timetable

The biggest campaign question in New Hampshire next year will be which Republicans will challenge former two-term governor and current U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan. The Democrat announced this month, as expected, that she’ll run in 2022 for a second 6-year term representing the Granite State in the Senate.

Retired Army Gen. Don Bolduc, who lost to Bryant “Corky” Messner in September’s GOP 2020 Senate primary, has already filed paperwork to run in 2022. But the spotlight’s on former GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, who lost her 2016 re-election bid to Hassan by a razor thin margin, as well as popular Governor Chris Sununu.

"I’m not ruling anything out," the governor said in a radio interview this week with Jack Heath on “Good Morning New Hampshire.” But the governor added “I’ll tell you, going down to Washington to be part of that mess is nothing I’d necessarily look forward to right now, that’s for sure."

 Pointing to his continued efforts to combat the coronavirus, and upcoming negotiations to hammer out the state’s  next two-year budget, Sununu said in an interview with Fox News that “we’ve got a lot of things I have to deal with over the next three or four months."

Even though he’ll likely face plenty of pressure from national Republicans in the coming months to consider a Senate run, it’s doubtful Sununu would make a decision until the upcoming state legislative session is over and the budget is passed and signed, which will not happen until June at the earliest.

Asked about his timetable for a decision, Sununu said “not until well into 2021.”

Hassan didn’t announce her 2016 Senate campaign until early October of 2015, following a bruising battle of the state’s two-year budget that extended into mid-September.

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