WASHINGTON — Top New Hampshire Republicans are mounting a vigorous fight to preserve the state’s cherished first-in-the-nation presidential primary, attempting to fend off challenges from national party members who want to diminish its prominence on the calendar.
In the wake of Donald Trump’s likely nomination, Republican National Committee members are discussing ways to alter the 2020 primary calendar by potentially shedding or diluting the power of the early-voting states, which historically have played an outsized role in choosing the presidential nominee.
One potential solution to dilute that power — pairing New Hampshire with Massachusetts on the calendar — drew incredulous and angry reactions Wednesday.
“This idea of linking New Hampshire’s primary to other states seems to me like the establishment trying to rig the game,” said Steve Stepanek, Trump’s New Hampshire cochair and a delegate to the convention. “If there is one thing we have learned this year, it’s that people are sick of the establishment rigging the system.”
Trump — the presumptive nominee, who got a major boost by decisively winning New Hampshire — told the Globe he would defend the Granite State’s status.
“If I am president, a change taking away New Hampshire’s primary will not happen, period,” Trump said through a statement delivered by his campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, who lives in Windham, N.H.
Making potential changes to the primary calendar will be among the topics discussed when Republican delegates gather for the convention in Cleveland in July. The threat to New Hampshire, and the idea of pairing some of the early states, was first reported by the New York Times.
No formal proposal has been put forward, although it is becoming a more frequent topic of conversation among delegates.
“There are about a half-dozen ideas about the best way to go through this process and this is the only time, under our party rules, when we can discuss them,” Massachusetts Republican National Committeeman Ron Kaufman said. “My best guess is that what will happen is that something will get passed that will allow us to study these issues more in depth for a year or something like that.”
Kaufman said he considered the pairing of two states to be “the least likely” among the proposals being discussed. Other ideas are moving to a regional primary system — in which different regions get a turn to go first — and whether voters who are not registered Republicans should be allowed to participate in the GOP nominating contest.
In early February, New Hampshire handed Trump him a resounding victory that launched him on a winning trajectory. And because Trump favored large rallies over small gatherings, state activists might now struggle to make the case that New Hampshire is unique, giving voters an opportunity to meet candidates up close.
“You have 49 other states looking at New Hampshire jealously,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party who recently wrote a book on the history of the primary. “A problem has always been, OK, you get rid of the existing states, what do you replace it with? There’s never been consensus.”
The modern political calendar has given precedence to Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina. Since 2008, Nevada has also been among the first states to vote.
Republicans have been saying for months that Nevada could lose its lofty status altogether because of a largely dysfunctional state party and low voter turnout. If this happens, another Western state with a large Latino population — perhaps Colorado or New Mexico — could take its place.
One of the more unusual proposals would significantly curb the influence of all four early states by linking them to a neighboring state that would hold the same contest on the same day.
For example, New Hampshire’s 100-year tradition of holding the nation’s first primary would be shared with Massachusetts, which would hold its presidential primary on the same day in 2020. Then in 2024, New Hampshire would share its presidential primary date with another neighboring state, such as Maine or Vermont.
Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker declined to comment on the idea.
“Governor Baker is focused on priorities in state government, such as passing a budget, improving the MBTA, and fighting the opioid crisis in the Commonwealth, not presidential politics,” Baker spokeswoman Lizzy Guyton said in a statement Wednesday.
The idea of linking states appears to be somewhat of a compromise. Some Republicans want to eliminate any special status for early states but cannot get the votes to make that happen. Others in those discussions prefer the idea of regional primaries that rotate in order every four years, but that would involve a cumbersome process of getting state legislatures to act in unison to set similar dates.
The chances of any of these proposals passing has a lot to do with whether Trump or past presidential candidates will get involved. Every candidate who ran for president last year vowed they would do what they could to maintain the status quo of the primary calendar.
Another hurdle in making any changes is that New Hampshire has a state law mandating that its primary take place first. The RNC could penalize the state or rule that its delegates are invalid, but in the past New Hampshire has chosen to take the penalties to retain its primacy on the calendar.
“The entire nation benefits when candidates are forced to answer the concerns of voters face-to-face in living rooms and backyards across New Hampshire,” said Jennifer Horn, the chairwoman of the New Hampshire Republican Party.
If these proposals are formally submitted, they would be voted on in the week before the national convention in July.