Michigan moves one step closer to becoming early primary state for Democrats

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Michigan Democrats' longstanding quest to become one of the party's early primary states is on the cusp of fruition.

The Democratic National Committee's Rules and Bylaws Committee on Friday afternoon formally adopted a proposal by President Joe Biden to make Michigan the fifth state to hold a nominating primary in 2024, putting it behind South Carolina, Nevada, New Hampshire and Georgia.

There were only two nay votes, those of members from Iowa and New Hampshire, which currently have a lock on the first two nominating contests in each presidential year.

UAW President Ray Curry, a member of the committee, urged the panel to adopt the changes proposed by Biden, noting the inclusion of Michigan adds Black, Latino and Muslim-American voters — as well as hundreds of thousands of union members and retirees — giving them a far greater say in who becomes the eventual Democratic nominee than is currently the case.

That, he said, will help the party win nationally. "We're here to win elections and we need Michigan to be part of that."

Michigan Democratic Party Chairman Lavora Barnes told the Free Press that if the Republican Party joins Democrats in moving Michigan up in its nominating calendar: "We will get candidates who have to take the time to visit the heartland. We will get candidates who represent the whole of the country."

Even if Republicans don't do so, however, Barnes said this is a step that will allow Democrats "to build better, stronger candidates" who are battle-tested in a big swing state in the upper Midwest, a region that has been key in presidential politics, especially in recent elections.

Biden urged changing the order, giving key constituencies more say

In a letter to the committee, Biden, as the de facto leader of the party, said it was past time to change the nominating calendar and that key segments of the Democratic Party — namely Black and Hispanic voters — had been largely left out of that process. “It is time to stop taking these voters for granted," he wrote.

The vote by the committee isn't the final word on the proposal: It will still have to be ratified by the whole Democratic National Committee in February and some states — particularly Iowa and New Hampshire, which have defended their first-in-the-nation contests for generations against arguments that their predominately white populations don't reflect the country as a whole — are planning to fight on. Michigan, too, will have to change its law mandating presidential primaries occur on the second Tuesday in March.

But the vote to recommend the new calendar, plus Biden's backing, which was announced Thursday night before the meeting began in earnest, makes it likely to be adopted by the DNC. As for Michigan's law, the state Senate — still led by Republicans ahead of Democrats taking majority control next month — this week approved legislation to move it up to the second Tuesday in February and sent it to the House for approval.

With Gov. Gretchen Whitmer winning reelection and Democrats taking over both legislative chambers soon, they can likely set any primary calendar that suits the national party, however. Curry told the Free Press that Democratic success in Michigan's midterm elections was "key" to the ultimate decision to back the state's inclusion in the early lineup.

As it stands under Biden's proposal, the early contests in 2024 would be: South Carolina on Feb. 6, Nevada and New Hampshire on Feb. 13, Georgia on Feb. 20 and Michigan on Feb. 27, so if that stands some change in state law would be needed. It also remains unclear what Republicans, both nationally and in Michigan, will do. While the parties have typically tried to coordinate voting in the early states, the Republican Party has said it remains committed to Iowa and New Hampshire going first.

That could lead to an interesting situation where South Carolina's Democrats, living in a traditionally Republican state, kick off the voting for the Democratic nominee. Michigan Republican Party Chairman Ron Weiser, meanwhile, has said only that the state "should have a very significant say in electing the next Republican president of the United States."

Biden lost early nominating contests in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2020 before winning in South Carolina, largely on the strength of Black turnout. He then won solidly in Super Tuesday states in early March before all-but-guaranteeing his nomination with a win over Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont in Michigan that year.

States that violate primary order face sanctions

In order to receive official permission from the party to move their primaries to the newly specified dates, each state will have to take certain steps. In Michigan, the governor and majority leaders in the state House and Senate will have to notify the national party by Jan. 5 — about a month from now — that it intends to change any necessary laws and then certify it has made those changes no later than Feb. 1.

If any state fails to meet the conditions, its nominating contest would be required to be after the first Tuesday in March.

One thing that will need to be finalized is how the party will sanction states that violate the calendar, if any do, once it's adopted. New Hampshire, for instance, has a state law that requires it to be the first nominating primary in the country — Iowa's caucuses, which have involved local meetings where candidate selections are made don't count against that at present — but the Democratic Party is under no obligation to recognize that law and could sanction the state if it violates the rules by reducing the number of delegates it sends to the national convention in 2024. This hurts any affected states because it is the delegates at the convention who vote to decide who is the party's nominee based on the votes in their states.

New Hampshire officials, including Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, have promised to go first regardless. Joanne Dowdell, a member of the Rules and Bylaws Committee from the state, said Friday: "New Hampshire does have a statute, it does have a law. And we won't be breaking our law."

New Hampshire's spot in the lineup is further hurt by conditions that require Sununu and Republican state legislative leaders to promise by Jan. 5 they will change the state law and expand early voting — which is extraordinarily unlikely.

If that state or any other decides to cross the line drawn by the proposal, however, it could lead to a situation such as in 2008 when Michigan, along with Florida, jumped the Democrats' primary calendar when South Carolina and Nevada were added ahead of them. It led to the eventual nominee and winner, Barack Obama, not campaigning in Michigan during the primary season and the status of Michigan's delegates remaining up in the air until an agreement was made to give each delegate half a vote at the national convention.

More:Michigan Democrats argue case for becoming an early presidential primary state

Biden has also said he wants no caucuses among the early contests, calling them in a letter to the committee, “inherently anti-participatory." A member of the committee, Iowa's Scott Brennan, said Biden's comments fail to take into account the changes Democrats have made to fix problems that led to the outcome of the caucuses in 2020 being unclear for days.

The Democratic Party already has rules in place that strip half the allotted number of delegates from any state that holds a party nominating contest ahead of the appointed window, and candidates who campaign in any state that violates the calendar — or even has his or her name listed on that state's ballot — cannot have any delegates from that state count toward his or her eventual nomination.

The party can decide on further sanctions as well. And while the party can always alter or relax those sanctions after the fact, the threat of reducing a state's power in selecting the nominee can be a politically powerful one.

Michigan's been battling to move up for years

For decades, key Michigan Democrats — notably the late U.S. Sen. Carl Levin and U.S. Rep. (and former DNC member) Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor — agitated to improve the state's position in the calendar, arguing that a larger, more diverse state was needed to help determine the party's nominee. Earlier this year, the DNC invited states to present their arguments for becoming part of the early process and Michigan, as well as many others, jumped at the prospect.

Dingell said she was proud of all the effort put forth.

"We did a good job; we made a great case. But I don't trust that anything's a sure thing until it happens," she said.

Being one of the early primary states guarantees Michigan will receive a lot of attention from candidates since many never make it past the early contests. That interest often continues even after election season as would-be future candidates — as well as officeholders themselves looking at reelection —position themselves.

But as Brennan noted, the adoption of such a strikingly new calendar upends longstanding traditions that could result — as they did in 2007 and 2008 — in uncertainty leading up until the next primary season is underway.

One Rules and Bylaws Committee member from Nevada, Artie Blanco, suggested a change Friday that would have moved South Carolina up three days and permitted her state to have a day to itself on Feb. 6 before New Hampshire voted a week later. Ultimately, she voted for Biden's plan, but it's not out of the question that there could be changes to the adopted calendar.

However the calendar ultimately shakes out, Elaine Kamarck, a committee member from Massachusetts, said Biden's plan — by including four swing states that at least in the 2020 election were up for grabs, Nevada, New Hampshire, Georgia and Michigan — will put candidates through a "gauntlet" that should show they can win among rural, urban and suburban voters.

She singled out competing among white working-class voters in Macomb County, saying Democratic performance there has, at times, been the "epitome" of the party's weakness nationwide. "We need to show we can win back Macomb County," she said.

Contact Todd Spangler attspangler@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @tsspangler.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan takes key step to moving up Democratic primary calendar