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Kathy Sullivan: A December primary will benefit Democrats, hurt Republicans

October 17. 2011 8:15PM

It is filing time for the New Hampshire Presidential Primary. All candidates are encouraged to file today, because at the rate we are going, the election may be held before the filing period closes. Due to the insistence by Florida that its primary be held in January, and the insistence by Nevada that its caucuses be held on a Saturday, rather than a Tuesday, it is becoming more and more likely that Secretary of State Bill Gardner will schedule New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary during the first two weeks of December.

Gardner's announcement of the likelihood of a December primary caused an immediate headache for Wayne McDonald, the new chairman of the New Hampshire Republican Party. McDonald's position is awkward. He had been working with Nevada and the other early states, South Carolina and Iowa, to avoid any problems. As party chairman, he needs to answer to the Republican National Committee, which considers a December primary a violation of its rules. The officials of the national party committees do not understand that the party chairmen and senior elected officials have no influence over the New Hampshire secretary of state when it comes to setting the primary date. So, it is understandable that McDonald hopes that Gardner will change his mind. However, he made the crucial mistake of telling that to the press, which always supports the secretary of state. McDonald ended up getting a down arrow from WMUR's political blog and an admonition from the editorial page of the Union Leader.

To make McDonald's position even more awkward, Peter Bragdon, the state Senate president, and Bill O'Brien, the House speaker, cut him off at the knees by calling for a candidate boycott of Nevada. McDonald protested that Florida was the problem, not Nevada, making it look as if the elected Republicans hadn't bothered to speak to McDonald before issuing their statements. He may be wishing Jack Kimball had never left.

There is little wonder that McDonald wants to do something to get the primary back into January. An early December primary is good for New Hampshire's Democrats. It means at least six weeks less of incessant criticism of President Obama in the state by the Republican candidates. Also, with the primary between Thanksgiving and Christmas, the busiest time of year for many Granite Staters, the voters will be a lot less engaged in the contest, and paying a lot less attention to the Republican message.

An early primary also hurts Republicans because it gives their candidates a limited time to build grass-roots organizations. Historically, a large number of new party activists on both the Republican and the Democratic sides first become involved because of a presidential campaign. We saw this on the Democratic side with an influx of new activists from the Obama and Dean campaigns in 2008 and 2004. But any candidate who does not have a grass-roots organization does not have time to build one.

Instead, the candidates will be scrambling to persuade voters through direct mail and television, which do not require volunteers. If a surging candidate like Herman Cain had three months, rather than six weeks, he might undertake the recruitment needed to do a large-scale neighbor-to-neighbor canvassing effort. A truncated primary season means there will not be several hundred trained Cain activists to pitch in with Republican general election efforts next November.

The December primary also means that the media's attention will focus on state politics, which, given Speaker O'Brien's growing propensity for controversy, is good for Democrats. More coverage of the squabbling between O'Brien and Senate President Bragdon will hurt Republicans, especially when it costs the state $2 million, as it did recently. O'Brien's recent heavy handedness in refusing to allow a recorded vote on one measure even caused one Republican legislator, previously a defender of the speaker, to say he was disgusted, calling O'Brien's tactics 'dictatorial and illegal.' Given the number of crazy bills that have been filed by Republicans for the session starting in January, the antics of the Republican majority and their speaker will receive the lion's share of the attention of the state's media. That can only be good for Democrats.

There is one downside to an early primary, however. The entertainment opportunities provided by some of the Republican candidates have been excellent. Who can forget Michele Bachmann moving the 'shot heard 'round the world'' from Concord, Mass., to Concord, N.H., and all the resulting jokes about looking for the wall in Berlin? And Rick Perry's relocation of the entire American Revolution from 1776 to the 1500s? But if sacrificing a few laughs means preserving the primary (and helping Democrats), then I say, Secretary of State Gardner: December it is!

Kathy Sullivan is a Manchester attorney and member of the Democratic National Committee. She was chairman of the state Democratic Party from 1999-2007.

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