GOFFSTOWN, N.H. — Joe Biden’s effort to strip New Hampshire of its first-in-the-nation primary could keep the sitting president from campaigning in the state in the run-up to the 2024 primaries.
But his allies can.
Onetime rival-turned-cheerleader Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont crossed state lines Saturday to deliver an economic policy speech — with plenty of praise for the Biden administration — at presidential pit-stop Saint Anselm College. California Rep. Ro Khanna headlined a major state Democratic Party fundraiser in May. And Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro is keynoting New Hampshire Democrats’ annual convention next month.
Their visits are in part self-serving for a group of ambitious politicians. But they are also a way of boosting Biden in absentia as Democrats nationally and in New Hampshire continue to clash over the future of what has historically been the first-in-the-nation primary — and as Republican presidential contenders campaign through the state largely unchecked.
Biden has little reason to campaign through the primary because he doesn’t face a serious Democratic challenger. However, incumbent presidents facing potentially tough general election fights tend to lay their campaign groundwork and even show up for events in New Hampshire ahead of the state’s primary. Former President Barack Obama rallied in New Hampshire two months before the 2012 primary there and had seven campaign offices in the state by the time voters went to the polls in January.
But Biden has created a quandary for himself in the state. He pushed last year to strip New Hampshire of its prized first primary status and replace it at the front of the 2024 nominating calendar with South Carolina, a more diverse state that propelled him to the nomination in 2020. The Democratic National Committee approved the president’s plan, which would see New Hampshire share the second primary date with Nevada.
Yet New Hampshire law requires the state to hold its presidential primary a week before any others, and Republicans in charge of the state legislature and the governor’s office refuse to change it. And so national and state Democrats have been locked in a bitter stalemate that’s increasingly likely to end with New Hampshire holding an unsanctioned primary — one without Biden being on the ballot.
The visits by Sanders and two of the Democratic Party’s rising stars offer vehicles for touting the Biden administration’s accomplishments in a purple state that Democratic presidential candidates have carried — though sometimes narrowly — for more than a quarter-century. Both Shapiro and Khanna are members of the Biden campaign’s national advisory board, and Sanders is an important validator for the president among progressives and young voters.
Their treks to New Hampshire also serve as a down payment of sorts from the party’s up-and-coming leaders in a state they view as crucial to winning presidential primaries in the post-Biden era.
“It’s good news for the primary that these rising stars would go to New Hampshire of all places,” said Democratic consultant Chris Moyer, who ran communications for New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker’s presidential campaign in the state and is now working on Cinde Warmington’s gubernatorial bid here.
Big-name visitors “can also be top surrogates [for Biden] who get some attention in lieu of the president himself actually going to New Hampshire,” Moyer said.
The DNC has put off dealing with New Hampshire by giving state Democrats more time to comply with the national party’s requirement that they hold their primary behind South Carolina’s on Feb. 3 — or get kicked out of the official early state window for 2024.
The latest extension is due to expire Friday, ahead of the next DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting Sept. 14 in Washington, D.C.
But New Hampshire Democrats out of power in Concord said their hands are tied by Republican leaders who refuse to entertain changes to the law and by the secretary of state who sets the primary date for both parties (likely Jan. 23).
“I don’t care what people are talking about in Washington. We’re going to have our primary. Democrats are going to come out and vote, and it’s going to be the first primary,” Kathy Sullivan, a former New Hampshire Democratic Party chair and DNC member, said in an interview.
If they don’t comply with DNC rules, the state runs the risk of not having delegates at next year’s nominating convention. Even more problematic, Biden may not appear on the ballot — creating an awkward situation where he could cede the first unofficial contest of the election to a fringe candidate like Robert F. Kennedy Jr. or Marianne Williamson.
New Hampshire Democrats have talked of waging a write-in campaign for Biden to prevent such an embarrassment en route to his eventual renomination. But Sullivan said no official plans have been set in motion yet.
In the meantime, it’s falling to Biden’s allies and campaign surrogates to spread his message in New Hampshire in his prolonged absence. Even before he moved last winter to oust New Hampshire from the top primary spot, Biden hadn’t set foot in the state since April 2022.
Sanders picked up the slack on Saturday in front of an at-capacity crowd at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics.
He praised the Biden administration for its “significant investments” in infrastructure and credited Biden for making progress on righting the nation’s pandemic-ravaged economy. Even as he called on Democrats to make an “ideological change of course” to win back the working class, the two-time presidential contender made clear he wants to see Biden stay in the White House.
“It is no secret that I want Joe Biden to be reelected president,” Sanders said. “He and I share the goal of beating back right-wing extremism.”
Other Democrats are similarly singing Biden’s praises here. Shapiro “absolutely” plans to talk about Biden and his accomplishments — through a Pennsylvania lens — during his headlining speech at the New Hampshire Democratic Party’s convention at the end of September, an aide to the governor said.
The Keystone State governor intends to discuss how the Biden administration helped fix a section of I-95 near Philadelphia in record speed after a bridge collapse earlier this year. He also plans to highlight a program the state set up with the administration that could result in up to $400 million in federal dollars to bolster workforce development in Pennsylvania.
And even as Khanna called on the president to campaign in New Hampshire in a speech at the state party’s iconic McIntyre-Shaheen dinner in May, the California representative played up the Biden administration’s legislative wins.
The Biden campaign referred comment to the DNC. Officials there said they continue to send the New Hampshire Democratic Party monthly funding for voter outreach efforts and to finance a communications embed targeted at the Republican presidential hopefuls campaigning in the state for what remains the first primary on the GOP side.
DNC officials also said they’re encouraging Democrats to continue visiting New Hampshire and are committed to supporting the state’s Democratic candidates up and down the ballot, with two congressional seats to defend next year and the governor’s office and state legislative majorities up for grabs. With popular four-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu stepping aside, national Democrats consider New Hampshire one of the party’s best chances to flip a governor’s seat next year.
The high-profile contest also offers convenient cover for the party’s potential 2028 White House aspirants to campaign in New Hampshire even as Biden tries to dethrone the state’s Democratic presidential primary for 2024.
“Everybody knows New Hampshire will have the first primary and Joe Biden will win it, even if he’s not on the ballot. But there will be more than just the presidential race on the ballot,” state Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley said. “Electing Democrats up and down the ballot in New Hampshire in 2024 is of national concern, and we’re glad to have folks willing to lend their prestige to the effort.”
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