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As Democrats weigh fate of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, Republicans prepare to run in it

Longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner, known as the “guardian” of the New Hampshire presidential primary, has pledged to bat away any attempts to threaten the state's first-in-the-nation status.
Longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner, known as the “guardian” of the New Hampshire presidential primary, has pledged to bat away any attempts to threaten the state's first-in-the-nation status.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

As Democrats debate whether New Hampshire should keep its first-in-the-nation primary, Republican 2024 hopefuls are already preparing to compete in it, an early signal that for at least one party, the state’s outsized importance in national politics has not waned.

Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas, former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, and former secretary of state Mike Pompeo have all made virtual or in-person appearances in New Hampshire in recent months, propelling speculation that they are weighing presidential campaigns. Those visits come as states across the country jostle for position on the Democratic presidential primary calendar and New Hampshire politicians fight to keep the primary where they say it belongs.

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Many Democrats, including some who ran for president in 2020, say Iowa and New Hampshire shouldn’t hold the nation’s first nominating contests because their majority-white populations don’t reflect the Democratic electorate. Those debates are taking place behind the scenes at the Democratic National Committee, as party leaders including former Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Representative Jim Clyburn of South Carolina both say states like theirs should appear sooner on the primary calendar, and Nevada state lawmakers have filed a bill to move to the front of the line.

“We definitely see a need for more diversity in states that are scheduled at the beginning of the election, to properly reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of our country, but also [because] it impacts the issues that are being discussed,” said Yadira Sanchez, co-executive director of the advocacy group Poder Latinx. “Our diversity demands that we see ourselves reflected in the primary process — and not at the end, when decisions have already been made.”

But for New Hampshire politicians in both parties, keeping the first-in-the-nation primary is mission critical.

“It’s the holy grail,” said Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who spent 10 years on the Republican National Committee. When he served, he said, “It was clear I had one mission: Keep the primary.”

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Why should it stay in New Hampshire? “One, it’s tradition, and two, we do a great job,” said Bill Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democratic National Committeeman and the husband of Senator Jeanne Shaheen. The primary is to New Hampshire what oranges are to Florida, he said; each state has its bragging rights for a reason.

Shaheen dismissed the argument that New Hampshire’s demographics should disqualify it, arguing it is a good early testing ground for candidates of any background because it’s small and comparatively inexpensive, allowing even little-known contenders to prove themselves.

“We create a level playing field. It doesn’t matter what the color of your skin is. We judge people by the content of their character,” Shaheen said.

The debate over which states deserve the political attention and economic boost of an early nominating contest is hardly new. But political experts say that this year, Iowa and New Hampshire face fresh vulnerability, owing to a number of factors: a fiasco at the Iowa caucuses in 2020, the Democratic Party’s increasing attention to its diverse electorate, and the relatively small role the states played in crowning the party’s current leader, President Biden.

Jim Roosevelt, longtime leader of the Democratic National Committee’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, said he anticipates discussing the order of the early states at two public meetings this spring, though the decisions will not be finalized for at least a year.

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In the meantime, New Hampshire politicians are going on offense to keep the primary at home, and Republicans are getting ready in earnest for it to begin. Pompeo and Cotton have appeared recently at virtual fund-raisers for Republicans in the state, and Haley campaigned for Republicans there last fall.

On the Democratic side, Vice President Kamala Harris visited the state last month, promoting the Biden administration jobs plan and expanded broadband access, though her visit could have more to do with Senator Maggie Hassan’s upcoming reelection fight; she’s considered one of the most vulnerable Democrats up in 2022.

Longtime Secretary of State Bill Gardner, known as the “guardian” of the primary, has pledged to bat away any attempts to threaten New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status.

The state GOP and Gardner, a Democrat, have taken aim at a sweeping federal voting rights bill that would automatically register new voters and ease the process of voting by mail, claiming — without specific evidence — that due to its reach, the bill could threaten the primary. Gardner testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee on the issue in April.

New Hampshire’s Democratic congressional delegation supports the bill, and Shaheen said the Gardner attack is a “red herring,” since it is the national party and the states themselves that determine the primary calendar, not Congress. But the debate has nonetheless drawn in more than one 2024 Republican candidate, with Cotton and Pompeo both siding with Gardner.

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As an early battleground, New Hampshire may make more sense for one party than the other, some political analysts said.

“New Hampshire is a white state, it is a rich state, it is an old state, it is a privileged state,” said Arnie Arnesen, a radio host and former Democratic candidate for governor. “What we saw in 2020 was that what delivered for the Democratic Party was basically none of those things.”

But “why would the Republicans not want to be in a white, privileged, wealthy state?” she questioned.

New Hampshire state law dictates that it must hold the nation’s first primary, but the national parties set the primary calendar for states. More than a decade ago, when Florida and Michigan did not follow the Democratic Party’s calendar, they were penalized at the convention by having the voting power of their delegates limited.

If New Hampshire rejected a later spot in the calendar, and the national party stripped its delegates’ power, presidential candidates would have to decide whether it was worth coming to the state just for a symbolic victory and some maple syrup.

“New Hampshire has never been about the delegates,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “It’s been about the publicity that winning here means for a candidate. Would candidates be willing to give that up? That becomes the question.”

Regardless of what the national parties decide, New Hampshire may be starting to lose its sway, said Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the Republican State Committee, because the primary carries weight only “as long as the candidates show up.”

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“God bless Bill Gardner, but the candidates are going to make strategic decisions about whether it is in their best interest to compete in New Hampshire,” Cullen said. “Candidates in both parties are [already] starting to pick and choose which states they’re going to participate in and which states they’re going to blow off . . . if not everyone’s competing here, the outcome has a lot less weight.”


Emma Platoff can be reached at emma.platoff@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emmaplatoff.