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Politics: Dems hit brakes on bid to dethrone Iowa, New Hampshire in 2024

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CHARLESTON, S.C. — Less than a year ago, Iowa and New Hampshire appeared poised to lose their privileged places on the Democratic Party’s presidential primary calendar.

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But Democrats, including in the White House, suddenly have more pressing problems. And as party leaders gathered in recent days for year-end meetings here, interest in what was once a red-hot effort to overhaul the order of the early nominating states had all but vanished.

Interviews with more than two dozen Democratic National Committee members, state party chairs and strategists laid bare widespread desire to avoid a divisive, intraparty dispute in 2022 — and skepticism that any change enacted after the midterm elections could be done in time for the next presidential campaign.

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“I think it’s going to stay the same,” said Colmon Elridge, the chair of the Kentucky Democratic Party. “The energy that was around tinkering with the calendar. … It hasn’t come up a lot, but when it does, it’s, ‘We’re not there anymore.’”

On the sidelines of the South Carolina meetings, one Democratic strategist said “there’s no energy for it,” while a DNC member who closely follows the calendar process asked, “Why not kick the can down the road to ’28, when you’re presumably going to have an open White House?”

Iowa, he said, “may still be f---ed. The real question is whether it’s f---ed in 2024 or 2028.”

Iowa and New Hampshire, after fending off challenges to their one-two order in the primary calendar for years, appeared especially vulnerable following the 2020 election. The two heavily white states were derided as insufficiently representative of the Democratic Party’s diverse electorate, while Iowa’s caucuses were marred by delayed results and calculation errors. The eventual nominee, Joe Biden, lost both states badly, further straining their claims to privileged status.

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In June, Nevada’s Democratic governor, Steve Sisolak, signed legislation to move Nevada’s 2024 nominating contest ahead of Iowa and New Hampshire, while Democrats in Washington considered, among other potential overhauls, rotating early primary states, hosting regional primaries or holding multiple early state primaries on the same day.

Any of those outcomes are still possible. The White House will have enormous influence on setting the calendar, and if Biden calls for a change, one almost certainly will be adopted. But the Biden administration has not yet weighed in, and DNC members appear far less motivated than they had once been to make an immediate change.

“I just don’t know if we’re at the point to have that discussion,” said Yvette Lewis, chair of the Maryland Democratic Party.

Amid a resurgent coronavirus pandemic and with Democrats still laboring to pass major pieces of Biden’s legislative agenda, she said, “Let’s deal with the issues at hand.”

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The party’s waning appetite for a calendar change is reflective of its defensive posture heading into the midterm election year. DNC members are expected as early as next month to begin discussing the 2024 order of states. But many Democratic officials are fearful of doing anything more to project a disunified front as they scramble to maintain their Senate majority and limit losses in the House. Without a strong push from the White House, which did not respond to a request for comment for this story, many Democrats think sheer inertia will keep things as they are.

There are politically expedient reasons for Democrats to take a pass on altering the calendar in 2024. Biden has said he plans to run for reelection, almost certainly rendering the Democratic primary non-competitive. Since Republicans will have an open primary — and appear committed to following the traditional calendar — some Democrats fear pulling out of Iowa in 2024 would inhibit their ability to bracket GOP events in the state, ceding media attention entirely to the Republican field.

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In addition, multiple state party chairs said they are hesitant to enact any calendar changes before the midterm elections that could upset activists in New Hampshire, where Democrats are defending the Senate seat held by Maggie Hassan. And Nevada Democrats may have hurt their case for moving up in the process after the state party erupted this year in a feud between pro-Bernie Sanders Democrats and allies of former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.

Even if there is “a lot of merit in shaking things up,” said Jane Kleeb, chair of the Nebraska Democratic Party, “We are focused on [Biden’s legislative agenda] and getting our Democrats elected.”

If the party does pursue a calendar change, she suggested “listening sessions” with Democrats throughout the country beforehand. Still, she asked, “Do we want to open the Pandora’s box?”

In Nevada, which traditionally follows Iowa and New Hampshire in the primary process, Judith Whitmer, the state party chair, said she is “definitely lobbying” for her state to go first in 2024, while party officials in South Carolina, the fourth early primary state, said they are not actively mounting an effort to move up, deferring to the DNC chair, Jaime Harrison (a former South Carolina chair himself), and the DNC.

Iowa and New Hampshire, meanwhile, are keeping their heads down.

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At the South Carolina meetings last week, Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, dismissed a question about the primary order, saying, “Why would I want to stir that pot?” The New Hampshire secretary of state, Bill Gardner, said simply, “Our tradition will continue.”

“Status quo is good for us,” said Jeff Link, a longtime Democratic consultant based in Iowa. “There have been threats of varying degrees since the ‘80s, and usually what happens is right after a caucus there’s a lot of energy to do something different, and then the reality sets in that then you have to get 49 states to agree on what the alternative is, and that becomes difficult, and it’s harder to change it than it is to leave it as it is.”

If the DNC does adopt a change, it’s unlikely the matter will be settled. Gardner has vowed to follow a state law requiring New Hampshire to hold its primary before any “similar election” in another state, while Dave Nagle, a former congressman and former Iowa state Democratic Party chair, said “Iowa’s going to go first, even if we have to [hold caucuses] in 2022, even if it’s a non-sanctioned process.”

The DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee could begin discussing the calendar at its next meeting, in late January, though no decision is expected until later in the year.

Jay Parmley, the executive director of the Democratic Party in South Carolina, which hosts the nation’s first in the South primary, said he expects there will be a “robust discussion.”

Reid and South Carolina Rep. Jim Clyburn — both highly influential party leaders — have argued that Iowa and New Hampshire should not play such a prominent role in the primary. Neither state factored in Biden’s victory in 2020. He finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire before going on to win the nomination.

"I think there have been some other priorities for the president — to me that’s the major explanation for why they haven’t had the time to focus on it," said former DNC chair Tom Perez, who is currently running for governor of Maryland.

Perez, who has long been critical of Iowa and New Hampshire’s favored status, said that despite the delays, he believes the 2024 calendar will ultimately be changed by the beginning of 2023. "I’m pretty confident there will be movement on the order of the primaries. I would be stunned if Iowa is still first," he said, also noting he'd spoken to Reid several times about Nevada's place in the calendar.

One state party chair acknowledged that after the 2020 primary, there remains “a lot” of demand among party officials for a new order of primary states. But the same party chair said there may be more interest in enacting a change in 2028 than in 2024.

In South Carolina, Parmley said, “There’s always a great interest to shake it up.”

But he added, “It’s harder to do than everybody thinks. It’s politically difficult. … Sometimes we all get in a hubbub or a whole big situation, and the weight of it all, it just collapses.”

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