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RNC proposal a 'death sentence' for NH's first-in-the-nation primary

New Hampshire Union Leader

February 13. 2016 8:12PM


Political scholar and primary historian Dante Scala calls New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary the "wild child of American democracy."

Over the years, national party elites have tried repeatedly to dislodge the wild child from its lead position on the election calendar, but the Granite State's primary protectors have beaten back every assault.

In 2016, however, they may face their biggest challenge yet, according to Concord developer Steve Duprey, a longtime member of the Republican National Committee and, along with Secretary of State Bill Gardner, one of the most consistent FITN defenders.

At the RNC's winter meeting in Charleston, S.C., last month, Duprey delivered what the National Review called "a stem-winder on the dangers of putting a big state like Texas at the front of the calendar."

Duprey's counterattack came in response to a resolution put forward by Utah national committeewoman Enid Mickelsen and first proposed by Texas GOP chairman Tom Mechler. The resolution would strip the four "carve-out" states — Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada — of their protected status.

Duprey asked for an immediate vote to settle the issue, but the resolution was tabled until the Rules Committee meets this summer at the GOP convention in Cleveland.

On Friday, Duprey posted a warning on Facebook that one version of the proposed rule could "eliminate the primary in a way that not even Secretary of State Bill Gardner could overcome."

"It would provide that any candidate who places their name on a ballot in a state that does not follow the prescribed calendar would forfeit all delegates earned nationally in every state," according to Duprey.

The idea has some support among RNC members and a block of convention delegates, he wrote: "It would effectively end all early states and leave state legislatures and secretaries of state impotent to overcome it."

New Hampshire has a law on the books requiring Gardner to move the date of the primary to ensure it is first on the election calendar, should any other state attempt to stake out an earlier position, but if the RNC decides to go nuclear on the issue, there appears to be little Gardner or anyone else could do.

No 'sacred cows'

The proposed rule change comes after statements RNC Chairman Reince Priebus made to the National Review in September, when he told the conservative publication that the first four states won't be considered “sacred cows” after 2016.

“I don't think anyone should get too comfortable,” he said.

Political observers agree that Iowa and Nevada caucuses face the most significant threat from the RNC initiative. Low turnout in Nevada, and a convoluted Iowa caucus system that mistakenly declared Mitt Romney a winner in 2012 and resorted to coin-toss tie-breakers in 2016, have GOP leaders looking at alternatives.

Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina may be willing to hang Nevada out to dry, but those three first states have for years banded together in a sort of NATO-style alliance in which an attack on one is viewed as an attack on all.

The threat to Iowa and New Hampshire, in particular, has hung over the two states for decades — ever since the primary system overtook the smoke-filled room and brokered convention as the chief method of candidate selection for both parties in 1972.

Age-old argument

Those who would unseat the two first states have for years argued that their small, non-urban, mostly white populations do not reflect the nation at large in the same way as, say, Pennsylvania. The defenders of the status quo, including many candidates over the years, have always argued that starting out in Iowa and New Hampshire has served the nation well.

The small states give the lesser known candidates a chance to gain traction with a year-long campaign in which a seasoned electorate turns out at town hall gatherings and asks tough questions.

New Hampshire has been first for a hundred years, and it's been more practical for all stakeholders to stick with an imperfect status quo than to venture into the uncharted territory of rotating primary calendars and rancorous debate each cycle about who goes first.

Fergus Cullen, a former state GOP chairman, says these latest efforts to dislodge New Hampshire are not likely to succeed, given the history of past attempts.

“I'm not overly alarmed that a member of the RNC has proposed a death-sentence provision for the future of the New Hampshire primary,” he said, “because there is always going to be someone who wants to kill it entirely.”

While such an overt attack is unlikely to succeed, the primary is being marginalized by the insidious effect of debates driven by polls and party machinations.

Past threats

Cullen, author of “Granite Steps: Stumbles, Surprises, and Successes on the New Hampshire Primary Trail,” published in partnership with the New Hampshire Union Leader, said the primary faced its most significant threat in the 1990s, during the insurgent candidacy of conservative purist Pat Buchanan.

First he embarrassed and weakened an incumbent President with a good showing against George H.W. Bush in 1992, and won the primary over establishment favorite Vice President Bob Dole in 1996.

“A lot of national Republicans were saying about New Hampshire what we are hearing today,” said Cullen. “Your electorate is not representative of the party as a whole.”

But the state has always enjoyed the support of incumbent Presidents — the defacto leaders of each party — even those Presidents who did not fare well in New Hampshire.

“We've had some key allies,” said Cullen. “One was George W. Bush. He was embarrassed here in 2000 (by the primary victory of John McCain), and New Hampshire was responsible in no small way for his father's political demise. If he wanted to cripple the New Hampshire primary, he could have, but instead he did the opposite.”

Political suicide?

Similarly, President Barack Obama lost the New Hampshire primary in 2008 to Hillary Clinton, but made no effort in the ensuing eight years to weaken the state's role on the Democratic side.

Democratic State Party Chairman Ray Buckley said there is no initiative among members of the DNC to tinker with the primary calendar, at least not at this point. Nor does he think the rumblings among RNC members will lead to any serious threat, mostly due to political considerations.

Any move by the RNC to strip New Hampshire of its first-in-the-nation status could seriously damage the candidacy of incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a rising star in the party who is already facing a serious challenge from Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan.

“It would have a suicidal and devastating effect on the GOP ticket in New Hampshire,” Buckley said. “I would think that the GOP national convention would understand that such a move would essentially cede New Hampshire to the Democratic party for a generation.”

RNC spokesperson Johanna Persing sounded a conciliatory tone.

“The RNC recognizes the historic role that New Hampshire has played in the presidential nominating process. And when the issue is brought up every four years, Chairman Priebus has consistently advocated on behalf of the status of New Hampshire and the early states,” she said.


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