WASHINGTON – Penalties or not, New Hampshire will kick off Democrats’ presidential selection process in 2024, the state’s Republican Gov. Chris Sununu says, extending a fight with the Democratic Party that could lead to a bruising loss for President Joe Biden in the early voting state.
“We’re going first no matter what,” Sununu said. “The White House badly mismanaged this, and the blowback has been extraordinary from all levels of the Democrat party.”
Democrats have been revamping which states go first in the process, a reflection of criticisms that current early states Iowa and New Hampshire don’t fully reflect the diversity of the nation. The national party wants to give South Carolina the first primary in the country and punish states that jump the line.
States with early contests typically attract more attention and have more influence than those that hold their elections later in the process.
A calendar that Democrats’ rule-making panel approved last month – at Biden’s behest – puts New Hampshire second and on the same day as Nevada. States were given a month to say they would comply.
Sununu, who is expected to challenge Biden for the presidency, is refusing. State law requires New Hampshire to hold the country’s first primary — and Republicans who control the state legislature say they will not change it.
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In an interview with USA TODAY, Sununu accused the Democratic National Committee of trying to “manipulate the system” and criticized the national party for allowing Biden, whom he referred to as a “candidate,” to dictate his own reelection path.
Democrats punted their primary calendar decision last summer to December after committee members, including New Hampshire Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, argued it could hurt the party in the midterm elections.
Last month, they voted to move South Carolina to the first primary slot and gave the same election date to New Hampshire and Nevada. Democrats also pushed back Iowa’s formerly first in the nation caucus and agreed to a request from Biden to add Michigan and Georgia to the group of states that go early.
“They realize how bad this is. Now they’re trying to buy time. They keep stalling,” Sununu said. “I hope they come to their senses and have the guts to reverse their decision.”
Members of the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee say that they’re not backing down from the calendar, which was designed to prioritize voters of color. Biden and the committee were fully aware of New Hampshire’s voting laws, they said, when the panel made its recommendations.
“As one of the people who voted for change, we were very comfortable with our vote, and with why,” American Federation of Teachers president and RBC member Randi Weingarten said. “This is now Sununu making a political choice and probably wanting to create some political dissonance within the Democratic Party.”
The panel plans to meet on Jan. 25 to discuss several states’ requests for more time to meet the requirements to hold their primaries early.
Rules and Bylaws Committee members said they are inclined to give New Hampshire and two other states, Georgia and Michigan, extensions so they can continue working toward that goal. Party leaders in the remaining early window states of South Carolina and Nevada have affirmed they will hold their primaries on the prescribed dates.
Michigan has also told the committee it is in the proces of moving its contest.
“These five states should have every opportunity to make their case and to come into compliance so that they can be part of the window, as we’ve designed it… So if it means they need a little more time, I’m fine with a little more time,” said RBC member Leah Daughtry. “What that deadline is, I want to hear, because I don’t think we have the luxury to wait 6, 7, 8, 9 months to know whether or not they’re going to be able to comply.”
The stakes are higher for New Hampshire, which faces punishment for holding its primary too early, than they are for Georgia, a state that has permission to move its contest up but could be prevented from doing so by Republicans.
“The committee has got to have the backbone to stick to our convictions and do what needs to be done,” said RBC member Maria Cardona. “The endgame here is for the primary calendar to be more reflective of the demographics of the nation and the demographics of the party.”
Members of the DNC still have to give final approval to the calendar and are expected to do so at a meeting Feb. 2-4 in Philadelphia.
Daughtry, who served as CEO of the Democratic National Convention in 2008 and again in 2016, said the DNC would sanction any state that tries to jump the line.
The rules say that states that hold their primary before the first Tuesday in March without DNC permission will lose half their pledged delegates to the party’s nominating convention.
Additionally, the state’s superdelegates, which include party leaders and federally-elected lawmakers, would be prohibited from voting at the convention.
“We are going to go first. They can’t stop us from doing that,” Sununu said. “So folks that want to challenge Joe Biden, which there will be, I have no doubt about that, are going to come here, and they’re going to campaign, and someone other than Joe Biden is going to win the first in the nation primary.”
Sununu’s position leaves the party exactly where New Hampshire Democrats said it would be if the committee upended the primary order.
Requesting that Democrats change the date of their election and expand absentee voting in a state that has a Republican governor and GOP-run state legislature is “not even a serious question,” state party chair Ray Buckley said.
Buckley said the state would not attend the national convention if the party’s elected officials are unable to vote.
“We’re fine with not going to the convention,” Buckley said. “We would just stay home and have a lovely July week,” he added.
Biden would also have to choose whether to break the rules and campaign in New Hampshire and appear on the primary ballot if he runs for reelection in 2024 as anticipated.
“It’s going to be the first event of the nominating calendar. And I don’t think it’s a very good start for 2024, for his reelection campaign, to lose the New Hampshire primary,” Buckley said.
Democrats’ rules say candidates who campaign in line-jumping states can’t receive delegate votes from the offending state at the national convention.
It would be up to DNC Chair Jaime Harrison to enforce additional punishment, such as keeping Biden off the primary debate stage.
The primary calendar has been challenged before. Florida lawmakers sued the DNC after the party held its primary first in 2008 in violation of the rules. A federal judge ruled in the DNC’s favor to prevent a “free-for-all” of early voting by states.
Democrats from Florida argued back then that their hands were also tied by a Republican governor and state legislature. Florida eventually received a lighter penalty from the DNC panel than what it had initially imposed. Another state that violated party rules, Michigan, also caught a break in the decision, which came as then-candidates Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton were locked in a fierce battle for the Democratic nomination.
The sanctions that the DNC has put forward now are “much stronger,” said Daughtry, who was chief of staff to the Democratic National Committee at the time.
“That debacle lives in our memory very vividly,” she said. “This is a much stronger sanction, because what it will mean is that whoever is running for president on our side cannot have their name on the ballot, cannot spend money in the state, cannot visit the state, because all of that will qualify as campaigning.”
Democrats say they do not expect a serious challenger to Biden, and the president could ultimately ask the committee to reverse its penalties on New Hampshire and seat that state’s delegates.
“But at the same time, he was pretty clear in his letter to us about what his objectives were in changing the calendar, and so if there’s any relenting, I’m sure it wouldn’t come until very, very, very late in the process,” Daughtry said.