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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Democrats overhaul party’s primary calendar, upending a political tradition

President Joe Biden addresses a Democratic National Committee gathering in Philadelphia on Friday, Feb. 3, 2023.


Upending decades of political tradition, the Democratic National Committee on Saturday approved a sweeping overhaul of the Democratic primary process, a critical step in President Joe Biden’s effort to transform the way the party picks its presidential nominees.

For years, presidential nominating contests have begun with the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, a matter of immense pride in those states, and a source of political identity for many highly engaged residents.

But amid forceful calls for a calendar that better reflects the racial diversity of the Democratic Party and the country — and after Iowa’s 2020 meltdown led to a major delay in results — Democrats voted to endorse a proposal that starts the 2024 Democratic presidential primary circuit on Feb. 3 in South Carolina, the state that resuscitated Biden’s once-flailing candidacy. New Hampshire and Nevada are scheduled to follow on Feb. 6, Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27.

“This is a significant effort to make the presidential primary nominating process more reflective of the diversity of this country, and to have issues that will determine the outcome of the November election part of the early process,” said Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Mich., who has vigorously pushed for moving up her state’s primary.

It’s a calendar that in many ways rewards the racially diverse states that propelled Biden to the presidency in 2020.

But logistical challenges to fully enacting it still remain. And resistance to the proposal has been especially fierce in New Hampshire, where officials have vowed to hold the first primary anyway, whatever the consequences.

New Hampshire, a small state where voters are accustomed to cornering candidates in diners and intimate town hall settings, has long held the first primary as a matter of state law.

New Hampshire Republicans, who control the governor’s mansion and state Legislature, have stressed that they have no interest in changing that law, and many Democrats in the state have been just as forceful and have argued that they cannot make changes unilaterally — points officials raised Saturday before the voice vote. Some have also warned that Biden could invite a primary challenge from someone camped out in the state, or stoke on-the-ground opposition to his expected reelection bid.

Biden has a rocky political history in the state — he placed fifth there in 2020 — but he also has longtime friends and allies in New Hampshire, some of whom wrote a letter expressing concerns about the proposal.

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee has given New Hampshire until early June to work toward meeting the calendar requirements, but some Democrats in the state have made clear that their position is not changing.

“They could say June, they could say next week, they could say in five years, but it’s not going to matter,” said former Gov. John Lynch, who signed the letter to Biden. “It’s like asking New York to move the Statue of Liberty from New York to Florida. I mean, that’s not going to happen. And it’s not going to happen that we’re going to change state law.”

And in a statement from New Hampshire’s federal delegation, Democratic lawmakers declared that “while President Biden and the DNC continue to push a plan of political convenience, they will not be successful in the end,” a comment that underscored the bitter nature of the intraparty debate.

But in a Philadelphia hotel ballroom before the vote, a number of Democrats argued obliquely and explicitly that tradition and even state law are not reason enough to preserve a particular lineup.

“No one state should have a lock on going first,” Dingell said Saturday, to applause.

Leah D. Daughtry, a veteran member of the DNC, pointedly took issue with the idea that state law “somehow gives some people divine right of privilege.”

“None of that is more important than what the party says it wants in its process,” she said.

Many prominent Democrats had been adamant that Biden’s preferences should prevail, reflecting his standing as the head of the party.

“If he had called me and said, ‘Jim Clyburn, I’ve decided that South Carolina should not be in the pre-primary window,’ I would not have liked that at all, but I damn sure would not oppose,” said Rep. James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., a close Biden ally. His state zooms into the most influential position on the primary calendar, although Clyburn said he had been agnostic on the early state order as long as South Carolina was part of the window.

DNC rules demand consequences for any state that operates outside the party-approved early lineup. That state would risk losing delegates in the nomination process, which could make delegate-hunting contenders question the time investment.

Certainly, the New Hampshire primary has historically been more about building momentum and media attention than securing a large delegate prize. Even so, New Hampshire Democrats have urged the DNC not to punish the state, and party officials there hope the matter of sanctions is still up for some degree of discussion.

Georgia Democrats, who are facing logistical hurdles in moving up their primary, have also received an extension until June to work toward meeting the new calendar lineup. Georgia is of personal interest to Biden; it helped propel him to the presidency and cemented the Democratic Senate majority. Atlanta is also vying to host the 2024 Democratic National Convention.

“We can proudly say that we sought to elevate the voices that have far too long been sidelined,” said Rep. Nikema Williams, D-Ga., chair of the state party. “Georgia isn’t a blue state, y’all. But we’re not a red state, either. I’d like to think that we’re periwinkle. There’s still more work to be done. This is a fight that’s worth fighting for.”

But Georgia’s primary date is determined by the secretary of state, Brad Raffensperger, a Republican, and officials from his office have stressed that they have no interest in holding two primaries or in risking losing delegates. Republicans have agreed to an early primary calendar, keeping the order of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada, and Republican National Committee rules make clear that states that jump the order will lose delegates.

Iowa Democrats argue that with significant hurdles still facing the new calendar, their state should be regarded as a safer bet to host an early contest.

“We now have a process with a whole lot of uncertainty and probably no clarity — no chance to even achieve some clarity — until June,” said Scott Brennan, a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee from Iowa. “You’ve turned the Mountain and Central time zones into flyover country for purposes of a presidential nominating calendar, and that’s just wrong.”

Iowa’s caucuses are deeply ingrained in the state’s political culture and even its dining culture, and voters are seasoned at probing politicians over fried treats at the state fair. But officials have acknowledged a need to revamp the caucus process and have promised changes. Iowa Democrats have been more muted in their public pushback than their New Hampshire counterparts, but how they may proceed with the timing of their caucuses is an open question, Brennan said.

Meantime, Nevada, South Carolina and Michigan have met the committee’s requirements for holding early primaries, according to a letter from the leaders of the Rules and Bylaws Committee.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan this week signed a bill moving up the state’s primary to Feb. 27. There are still questions regarding how quickly that could take effect, and how Republicans in the state may respond, but Democrats there have voiced confidence that the vote can be held according to the DNC’s new calendar.

There had also been some resistance to the idea of South Carolina — a Republican-tilted state that is not competitive in presidential general elections — serving as the leadoff state, while others strongly defended the idea of elevating it.

Regardless, the reshuffle may only be temporary: Biden has urged a review of the calendar every four years, and the party has embraced steps to get that process underway.

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