NEW CASTLE, N.H. — Former Vice President Mike Pence sat in a historic, luxury hotel for a GOP women’s event in this seaside town on Monday. In recent weeks, he's been in demand to talk about his new book, drop details about Donald Trump or tease his own potential presidential run.
But the first question to Pence was about something far more pressing to those in the room: What did he make of President Joe Biden’s attempt to take the first-in-the-nation primary from New Hampshire?
“It’ll never happen,” Pence said. Amid the gilded walls and shimmering chandeliers of Wentworth by the Sea, cheers and applause broke out all around. “New Hampshire will always be the first-in-the-nation primary — for the next 100 years.”
In the Granite State, the reaction to Biden’s primary calendar proposal — which calls for South Carolina leapfrogging New Hampshire and going first — wasn’t as polite. Republicans and Democrats, elected officials, college professors, servers at diners and the customers who crowd their counters, spat out a similar sour sentiment toward the president.
“How dare he?” Laurie Jasper, a member of the New Hampshire Federation of Republican Women, said. “How dare he think he can influence New Hampshire that way? It’s just outrageous.”
The proposed change, already endorsed by a Democratic National Committee panel, isn’t merely a reshuffling of states in a presidential calendar. To the people of New Hampshire, it’s a deep disturbance to the political soul of the “live free or die” state, where restaurant workers not only can tick off a list of presidents they’ve met but recount which ones will look you in the eye.
It's a state that boasts that its primaries produced both John F. Kennedy, who became the first Catholic U.S. president, and Mitt Romney, who became the first Mormon presidential nominee of a major political party.
And it's one that lured the so-called Peanut Brigade in which women in mink coats came up from Georgia to knock on doors in the frigid temperatures for their governor, Jimmy Carter.
"It was the funniest goddamn thing in the world," recounted Billy Shaheen, who helped run Carter's campaign and is now a national committeeman and the senior senator's husband.
But beyond the storied history of the state’s primaries, there’s a practical side that’s at risk, people here argue. The president’s new proposed schedule saps the intimacy from a process that allowed candidates to traverse the state without a plane and granted scores of the politically patriotic the chance to host candidates in their living rooms or at the local gymnasium to grill them on policy.
Democrats warn that Biden’s changes could have catastrophic consequences for a party that’s worked for decades to turn the state purple, and a delegation that is already taking blame for the White House’s move. The president made the decision even after the New Hampshire delegation made a personal appeal to him.
“The delegation spoke with the president, he listened to what we had to say and then he submitted a proposal to the rules and bylaws committee that totally disregarded it,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen said in an interview.
After the White House’s intention came down, both Shaheen and her fellow Democratic senator, Maggie Hassan, skipped the White House congressional ball.
“It would have produced a lot of concern among some of my voters back home,” Shaheen said. “I thought it was more important to not attend and to stay focused on what’s happening in New Hampshire.”
The White House stunned the New Hampshire Democratic Party two weeks ago when it recommended a wholesale change to the presidential primary calendar that extracts Iowa from the early states, places South Carolina first, then calls for Nevada and New Hampshire to follow on the same day before ending with two newly added states — Georgia then Michigan.
Salting the wound was the revelation that South Carolina hadn’t even asked to be first, and officials there contend they were as surprised as anyone to be handed the spot.
For his part, Biden sent a letter along with his recommendation, explaining that Black voters had long been “the backbone of the Democratic Party but have been pushed to the back of the early primary process,” and it was something he was determined to change. In South Carolina, the majority of Democratic primary voters are African American.
But there's plenty of skepticism here that diversity was the White House's true motivation.
“This is the most outrageous maneuver, and so blatantly transparent. It really shows what the president’s true colors are,” said Neil Levesque, who heads the nonpartisan New Hampshire Institute of Politics, which hosts presidential candidates in its regular “Politics & Eggs” series. “He’s a candidate, potentially, who is trying to rig the election in a way that best suits him.”
Levesque called South Carolina a “party boss state” because, after coming in fifth place in the 2020 New Hampshire primary, Biden went on to get “one endorsement and he wins,” he said, referring to the influential backing by Rep. Jim Clyburn, the South Carolina powerhouse, that led to Biden’s victory in the state and set him on the path to the presidency.
“This is what we’ve been fighting against for years, which is that party bosses and people in smoke-filled rooms don’t get to pick who the party nominees are,” Levesque added, charging that the decision had nothing to do with giving voters of diverse backgrounds an earlier say in the process. “North Carolina is more diverse than South Carolina. Hawaii is the most diverse state in the nation — this is not about diversity. It’s about people who are candidates trying to maneuver and rig the system so they can win.”
Levesque made the argument in a conference room inside the institute, not far from where a black and white photo of John F. Kennedy hangs bearing this 1960 quote: “I like a country and a state where the politicians are not the bosses, where the editors are not the bosses, where the publishers are not the bosses but where the people are; and I think we have a chance to show it tomorrow.
Just what will change functionally in New Hampshire remains up in the air. Democrats say they aren’t about to retreat behind South Carolina and anyway, they can’t. They’re reliant on Republicans to change a state law requiring New Hampshire to hold its primary seven days before any similar contest. New Hampshire’s Republican governor, Chris Sununu, called that prospect “dead on arrival.” It was difficult to find anyone who disagreed.
“Oh, we’re going first,” Kathy Sullivan said so casually that she didn’t even look up from stirring her New England black tea, the last caffeinated bag left at the famed Red Arrow Diner in Manchester that morning.
Sullivan, who was a longtime New Hampshire DNC member, worried that if the DNC imposes “the death penalty” on candidates who still campaigned in New Hampshire, it would shift to the White House the power that everyday New Hampshire voters long held.
“It just really takes the control away and the voice away from the average voters and gives it to basically a handful of people in Washington,” she said.
The DNC can punish states that don't comply, as well as future presidential candidates who campaign in New Hampshire, if it isn’t sanctioned as a state allowed in the early window, by refusing to seat their delegates or not allowing them to take part in debates. The DNC has not yet detailed the full consequences, but a DNC panel has the authority to determine sanctions.
Ultimately though, New Hampshire Democrats argue this sort of punishment will only backfire on the party nationally; as Democrats in the purple state are hobbled, Republicans will zigzag throughout New Hampshire, spending money on messaging, filling town halls and house parties, all the while drawing prized independents.
“We’re not sitting this out,” Billy Shaheen said. “We spent 50 years building the Democratic Party. We’re not walking away from it.”