Democrats race to avoid a Biden embarrassment in New Hampshire

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NASHUA, N.H. — Top Democrats are scrambling for ways to avoid a catastrophe in New Hampshire in which Joe Biden may not appear on the primary ballot, ceding the first unofficial contest of 2024 to a fringe candidate.

The bizarre predicament is one of the president’s own making, after he pushed for changes to the party’s presidential nominating calendar that stripped the Granite State of its first-in-the-nation primary. The move was designed to reward South Carolina, which catapulted Biden to the nomination in 2020.

But there’s a state law requiring New Hampshire’s contest be held a week before any others, and Republicans in charge of the governor’s office and state legislature are refusing to touch it. If they don’t, a primary may well be held without the sitting president putting his name on the ballot.

Now, national Democrats are searching for an off-ramp. With a June deadline looming for New Hampshire to make progress on changing its law or get kicked out of the official early voting lineup, Democratic National Committee members are privately considering giving the state more time.

“If there's any opportunity for this to get resolved by New Hampshire having more time, all of us will say, ‘Give New Hampshire more time,’” said labor leader Randi Weingarten, who sits on the DNC committee that approved the changes to the nominating calendar.

Some have also floated the possibility of putting together a party-run primary to get around its state law.

“In states where state legislatures have refused to comply with the party rules, the state parties have run primaries that are conducted by the party,” said James Roosevelt, Jr., co-chair of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, adding that New Hampshire Democrats are “aware that that is an alternative.”

But New Hampshire Democrats, furious that national party leaders upended their prized primary, don’t seem to care what the DNC has to offer. They insist they’re going first — whether Biden’s on the ballot or not.

“We can’t change our laws and that’s that. We’re hosting the first primary,” said Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “The president can decide if he wants to put his name on the ballot.”

The relationship between New Hampshire Democrats and national party officials began to deteriorate after Biden moved last year to slide South Carolina to the front of the line and bump New Hampshire back to second on a shared date with Nevada.

But it has hit rock bottom as the DNC’s June 3 deadline approaches and as Biden’s reelection launch renews questions about whether he’ll campaign in a rogue state or risk losing the first unofficial contest to the other declared Democratic candidates, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. and Marianne Williamson. Neither pose an actual threat to Biden’s renomination, but they could present an embarrassing distraction at the start of the nominating process.

That intraparty iciness was on stark display at New Hampshire Democrats’ iconic McIntyre-Shaheen dinner this past Friday. In the past, the major fundraiser has drawn dignitaries including former Presidents Barack Obama and Bill Clinton. This year, state party officials pointedly picked Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), one of the only Democrats outside of New Hampshire who has staunchly defended the state’s primary, as the headliner.

Khanna, who serves on Biden’s national advisory board for 2024, called on the president to campaign in New Hampshire, where Williamson and Kennedy have signaled they will compete regardless of potential party sanctions. If he doesn’t, Khanna warned, it could harm his general election chances in a small but key swing state.

“Let me be very clear: It would be political malpractice to strip New Hampshire of delegates, disenfranchising Granite State Democrats for a decision out of their control,” Khanna said to rousing applause. “We all know these four electoral votes are going to matter for the presidency.”

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), another Biden ally, also took sharp aim at the DNC at the event.

“We are not going to leave New Hampshire and the primary to the Republicans,” she said. “I don’t care what the Democratic National Committee says.”

National Democrats argue they’re not abandoning New Hampshire. For instance, the DNC has launched an embed program in the state to track Republican candidates and deployed its national distributed voter contact program for key New Hampshire elections.

Beyond creating a distraction at the beginning of the 2024 primaries, the potential of a fiasco in New Hampshire risks inflaming party tensions just as the general election kicks off. It’s still not clear the severity of the sanctions the DNC might impose against New Hampshire if it goes out of order. But under penalties the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee passed last year, the state could lose half its delegates if it breaks with the party’s calendar.

In order to stave off such a situation, national Democrats are looking for a fix.

A “real possibility” that Democrats are considering is extending the deadline so that New Hampshire has more time to meet the party’s requirements, according to a person familiar with the process of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, which revamped the primary calendar.

New Hampshire hasn’t requested additional time to come into compliance because, Democrats there said, trying to change their state law is a losing battle. But that didn’t stop the DNC from approving the initial extension until June.

Meanwhile, Democrats in the state are shutting down the idea of a party-run primary before they’ve even formally been approached about it. Buckley said a party-run primary would be a logistical nightmare and extremely expensive, costing upwards of $7 million.

“Absolutely impossible,” he said. “Where would I rent 2,000 voting machines? Hire 1,500 people to run the polls? Rent 300 accessible voting locations? Hire security? Print 500,000 ballots. Process 30,000 absentee ballots.”

The power to set New Hampshire’s primary date rests with Secretary of State David Scanlan, who said that he’s open to holding the primary as early as this year, if necessary, to circumvent both the DNC’s preferred calendar and Iowa’s proposal to let caucus participants select their preferred presidential candidate by mail before other states’ contests (a move that would make it functionally more like a primary).

“New Hampshire will hold the first-in-the-nation primary,” Scanlan said. “We believe all candidates that want to run for president should put their names on the ballot in New Hampshire, and we expect that there will be plenty of candidates that do in both parties.”

Whether Biden would file his name in a rogue New Hampshire primary is unclear. A campaign aide previously said the Biden team hopes the state doesn’t jump the line, but is prepared to abide by any sanctions imposed by the DNC if it does.

Still, Biden is facing pressure to compete in a state that hasn’t voted for a Republican for president since 2000 but that Democrats can’t afford to lose in a close election.

Rep.Annie Kuster(D-N.H.) has publicly and privately urged Biden to be on the primary ballot. And other top New Hampshire Democrats, including Shaheen and Rep. Chris Pappas (D-N.H.), said they’ve warned the president his absence could jeopardize not only his general election prospects, but also those of down-ballot Democrats such as Kuster and Pappas. And there could be a competitive gubernatorial race if Republican Gov. Chris Sununu runs for president or doesn’t seek reelection.

“The recommendation that the delegation has made all along is for the president to come here and campaign,” Pappas said. “We’re hopeful that he will still entertain that as things move forward.”

The defiance of New Hampshire’s Democrats is fueled in part by a belief that the DNC won’t have teeth when it comes to sanctioning states that jump the line. They point to how the party eased penalties on Florida and Michigan after they broke party rules and held their primaries too early in 2008.

“It would be pretty strange to see the first and second female governors and United States senators [elected in New Hampshire] not seated,” said Donna Soucy, New Hampshire’s DNC committeeperson and state Senate Democratic leader, referring to Shaheen and Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.).

New Hampshire Democrats also argue they’ve made a good-faith effort to meet the second part of the party’s requirements to stay in the official early-state window — expanding voting access by pushing Soucy’s legislation to create no-excuse absentee voting in the state, albeit to no avail.

But outside of New Hampshire, Democrats have literally laughed off the prospect of Biden flouting his own calendar and campaigning in a rogue state.

“That would be awfully weird,” rules committee member Elaine Kamarck said, chuckling. “While we followed Biden’s lead on this, the committee itself was torn about whether [we should let] New Hampshire go first. It was really his decision that tipped the hat on this.”

Sure, that means Kennedy or Williamson could carry the state. But national Democrats say that won’t matter.

“When you then move on to other states, the embarrassment will be to Marianne Williamson and Robert Kennedy,” said DNC member Carol Fowler. “Biden will just beat them so badly.”