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White House sparks primary firestorm by pushing South Carolina for top spot

After it botched the 2020 caucuses, Iowa is set to lose its coveted first-in-the-nation status. But Biden's recommendation that South Carolina go first quickly led to internal divisions.
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WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is recommending that South Carolina, the state that lifted him to front-runner status in the 2020 primaries, kick off Democrats' 2024 presidential nominating contest, according to a top Democratic source familiar with the plan.

In doing so, he has set off a frenzied scramble among competing early states that are apoplectic over the proposal.

The proposed order would do away with the Iowa caucuses' leading things off. Instead, South Carolina would go first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada on the same day, trailed by Georgia and then Michigan, according to two senior party officials.

The plan drew howls from New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley, who first told NBC News that his state would be the first primary contest no matter what.

The Democratic National Committee "did not give New Hampshire the first-in-the-nation primary," Buckley said. "It is not theirs to take away. We will be holding our primary first."

South Carolina, however, was elated.

“It appears Joe Biden is not just trying to transform America, but he’s attempting to transform the way we elect presidents, and his impact is going to be felt for generations to come,” South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Trav Robertson said.

The White House set out a plan, first reported by The Washington Post and confirmed by NBC News, in which Biden asked for a schedule that had South Carolina's primary first, followed by New Hampshire and Nevada a week later and, after that, Georgia and then Michigan.

In a letter Thursday to the DNC's Rules and Bylaws Committee, Biden, who did not specify his preferred order of states, wrote, "For decades, Black voters in particular have been the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process."

He also said Democrats "should no longer allow caucuses as part of our nominating process," dealing an expected blow to Iowa.

NBC News reported earlier in the day that officials were poised to drop Iowa and move up Michigan in their presidential primary calendar starting in 2024, according to several Democratic officials involved in the process.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., called the White House plan “short-sighted” and vowed Thursday to stay the course on the state’s tradition of holding a first-in-the-nation primary, citing a state statute dictating that New Hampshire must hold its primary seven days before any other state.

“It’s a shame the White House’s short-sighted decision risks splintering attention from candidates, denying voters crucial opportunities to connect with candidates and hear their visions and policy priorities,” Shaheen said in a statement.

“As frustrating as this decision is, it holds no bearing over when we choose our primary date," she added. "We look forward to hosting candidates in New Hampshire for the 2024 presidential primary.”

Party members debating the future of their nominating process have been anxiously waiting on word from the White House ahead of a key meeting Friday.

The reshuffling, which party insiders expect to be formally proposed at a DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee meeting that starts Friday, is aimed at simultaneously enhancing the influence of nonwhite voters in the nomination process and ensuring Democrats pick standard-bearers who can compete effectively against Republicans in battleground states. 

“I want our primary process to reflect the direction of our party,” a committee member said. Michigan offers racial and ethnic diversity, as well as a mix of urban, suburban and rural voters, this person said, adding, “Iowa just doesn’t have that.” 

Final ratification will not take place until the next meeting of the full DNC early next year, but the White House endorsement paved the way for the new plan and the elevation of certain states.

After news of the proposed state order emerged, Democratic Rep. Debbie Dingell of Michigan indicated she was pleased that her state was being included in the first five contests, while pointing out that finalizing the list is still weeks away.

"This isn't done," she said in a phone interview, noting that it is "going to be tough" to get it through the full DNC.

Michigan, which had been seen as a leading contender for weeks, is a Midwest battleground state, critical to Democrats’ so-called Blue Wall, and it has the racial, economic and geographic diversity Democrats said they are looking for. It is also far larger than any of the other early states.

Democrats also flipped the Michigan Legislature, and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer won re-election last month, ensuring state support for the new primary date. The state Senate voted Tuesday to move the presidential primary to the second Tuesday in February, a month earlier than its current date.

"It's something that people have been pushing for for a long time. I think it'd be great for our state. I think we'd be a great fit," Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said Thursday.

While Nevada was on the list to keep its spot as first in the West, top political and party officials in the state were disappointed it was not first overall. Nevada Democrats were perhaps most aggressive in their attempts to supplant New Hampshire as the first primary.

Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada voiced their opposition to Biden’s recommendation, highlighting their state’s status as a presidential battleground, unlike deep red South Carolina.

“We strongly believe the first presidential nominating contest should be held in a competitive, pro-labor state that supports voting access and reflects all of America’s diversity — in other words, a state that actually aligns with the DNC’s own priorities for updating the calendar,” the senators said in a statement Thursday night. “This proposed new order for the early states disregards the broad coalition of national organizations and leaders calling for Nevada to go first, and instead elevates a state that doesn’t meet the criteria to start off this process.”

“We hope this proposal is amended and improved to address these serious concerns,” they added.

In an earlier interview, Cortez Masto said Nevada is "a microcosm" of the U.S.

“You can come into this state when you’re running for president and [if] your message resonates and you win Nevada, then that messaging is going to carry you through the rest of the country,” she said.

Dozens of other states submitted bids to join the early states, which are given permission by the Democratic and Republican parties to hold their nominating contests before the rest.

Democrats have been revisiting their calendar since 2020, when Iowa Democrats botched their caucuses, a debacle that followed years of criticism that the increasingly Republican state is too red politically and too white demographically to play such a critical role in selecting Democratic nominees.

In his three White House runs, Biden has never performed well in Iowa. He flamed out in the state in 1998, won less than 1% of state delegate equivalents in 2008 and came in fourth in 2020.

As president and leader of his party, Biden, whom most expect to run essentially unopposed for the Democratic nomination in 2024, carries weight.

Republicans still plan to stick with Iowa, which has held the coveted first-in-the-nation status since the 1970s. That means the two parties will have different presidential primary maps for the first time in years.

Some in Iowa have threatened to hold their caucuses early regardless of what the DNC says, but states that try to cut in line or disobey the national party risk losing their representation at the national conventions, where presidential nominees are formally selected.

The DNC refused to seat half the delegates from Michigan and Florida in 2008 after the states moved up their primaries without authorization.