Fierce rivals but same attitudes towards California's threat to first in the nation primary

Secretary of State Bill Gardner, right, and Colin Van Ostern, left, were fierce rivals for the job that Gardner narrowly held onto. But the pair agreed on the wait-and-see approach to the threat California poses to New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary position for the 2020 presidential election.

Fresh off surviving the stiffest challenge of a storied 42-year career, Secretary of State Bill Gardner now faces another affront to New Hampshire’s vaunted first-in-the-nation primary, this one from a familiar foe with a new strategy.

Last year, California Gov. Jerry Brown convinced lawmakers in that state to move up its 2020 presidential primary to March 3, 2020.

And in recent weeks election officials in that state confirmed their next presidential primary will deploy mail-in voting.

This means ballots in the West Coast state can be cast 30 days before that election or starting the first Tuesday in February.

This could impinge on New Hampshire’s first primary law that guarantees its vote be at least seven days before any “similar election.”

Jim Demers is a longtime Democratic operative who co-chaired Barack Obama’s two presidential campaigns in New Hampshire and now advises 2020 potential Democratic hopeful and New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker.

“I do think it has the potential of changing the early nominating process because California is such a delegate-rich state. I believe candidates are going to have to spend time there early on in the process, which will keep them from spending as much time in other places like New Hampshire,” Demers said.

“This isn’t just a change for New Hampshire. It will impact Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada as well.”

Mike Dennehy is a seasoned Republican campaign strategist who was the late Arizona Sen. John McCain’s political director for both of McCain’s New Hampshire primary victories.

“Voting by mail is a serious risk to the New Hampshire primary in those states like California, which are clearly trying to creep within the window,” Dennehy said. “It’s a concept that is sweeping across the country, and we have to be prepared to carefully respond to it.”

State law gives Gardner broad authority to set the primary date as he sees fit and that could be much earlier than Feb. 3, 2020, when voting by mail could begin in California.

In 2008, Gardner set the primary date for Jan. 8 to ward off encroaching states; in 2012, the first-in-the-nation primary was on Jan. 10.

Gardner said he wasn’t surprised California was the one with this latest wrinkle.  After all, while running his second primary in 1980, an ambitious San Francisco-area congresswoman named Nancy Pelosi spearheaded a campaign to move her home state’s vote from the back of the primary calendar.

“In 1984, California included Super Tuesday and then they moved it back a little bit,” Gardner recalled.

“They have gone back and forth two or three times; they had it for two or three cycles. They didn’t want to spend any extra money. It’s been June for two cycles.”

Gardner is well aware that Brown is no fan of New Hampshire since by the time he ran for President in 1992, he was known by his critics as “Governor Moonbeam.”

Legendary columnist Mike Royko gave him that moniker after Brown started raising eyebrows with moves like launching the state’s own satellite and dating pop star Linda Ronstadt.

Brown struggled for attention or even a foothold in that race against a favorite son from Massachusetts, the late Sen. Paul Tsongas and the eventual White House winner, Bill Clinton.

Brown has made few visits back to New Hampshire since and has not been shy about condemning this small state’s oversized role in picking Presidents.

What also could be driving this move for 2020 is there could be not one but several California Democrats running to try to knock off President Trump.

They include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, hedge fund billionaire and NextGen America founder Tom Steyer and U.S. Reps. Eric Swalwell and Adam Schiff.

Last week Trump nemesis and L.A. lawyer Michael Avenatti took himself out of the running.

Gardner agreed mail-in voting is a modern innovation that must be closely watched.

Oregon already has 100 percent voting that way, Washington is near that mark and in California nearly 60 percent vote by mail.

But Gardner said it’s much too early to overreact to the threat because this move might not sustain itself as Brown gives way to new California Gov.-elect Gavin Newsom.

“That’s why you can’t get out too much out front. Too many times if you make public comments you narrow the dialogue and events may overtake what the prior thinking was at the time,” Gardner said.

“You just wait. We’ve got plenty of time here. Bills go through but they also get amended.”

Gardner narrowly beat former Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern of Concord, who charged Gardner with endorsing changes Van Ostern claimed intimidated students and immigrants from voting.

Van Ostern agreed with Gardner’s approach to this threat, however.

“I am not showing our cards to the other states,” Van Ostern said when asked about California’s moves before he narrowly lost to Gardner on a second ballot.

Demers and other advocates said New Hampshire lawmakers should explore mail-in voting, but only for the presidential primary.

“I think it is a time to consider early voting maybe just for our presidential primary to see how it works out,” Demers said. “Early voting by mail is becoming more and more popular, so I think we need to deal with this.”

Dennehy disagreed with that approach.

He warned it would take the spotlight off the state that always has been among the leaders in voter turnout.

Last month, the state broke the turnout record for a midterm election by 85,000 votes.

“As the old saying goes, ‘Why do you want to discourage people coming to the polls when we have such a tradition of it?’ ” he said.

“It’s also the slippery slope. Once you open that door then the proponents are going to want to only vote by mail, and there will be a steady march until it is at 100 percent.

“Then we lose what’s special about New Hampshire and we’re just like any other lazy state that has to make it so easy just to get their people to vote.”

klandrigan@unionleader.com