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Politico Playbook: How Democrats betrayed New Hampshire

CONCORD, NH – This morning NHDP Chair Ray Buckley was featured in Politico's Playbook newsletter and Politico’s Playbook Deep Dive podcast for an hour-long discussion on the first-in-the-nation primary and how the DNC’s primary calendar changes could have long-term political implications in New Hampshire.

Listen to the full interview here.

THE PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW: RAY BUCKLEY — On the night of Dec. 1, Ray Buckley got a call from JEANNE SHAHEEN.

Buckley is the longtime chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party, and Shaheen is the state’s senior senator. Together they have spent years protecting New Hampshire’s role as the host of the first presidential primary.

Shaheen had just hung up with someone at the White House

“I’ve known Sen. Shaheen since I was 15 years old,” he said. “So I know when she is very angry. I could immediately tell that something was wrong.”

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) was set to meet to review changes to the primary calendar. Everyone knew that Iowa was in trouble. The state had blown the 2020 caucuses, and Biden was rejected by Democrats in the state in all three of his presidential runs.

New Hampshire was supposed to be safe. Despite Biden’s fourth-place showing there in 2020, Buckley and Shaheen had no idea that the state’s prized position, which is mandated by state law, could be in jeopardy.

“It had never been broached to us by anybody of influence within the party,” Buckley told Playbook this week, including by “anybody in a top position at the White House.”

Shaheen herself had talked to Biden three days earlier, and, according to Buckley, “there was never even the slightest hint” from the president that New Hampshire was in trouble. The state, after all, had become a small but indispensable piece of Democrats’ electoral map.

Now Shaheen told Buckley the news of what amounted to the greatest political betrayal of their careers: Biden was endorsing a primary plan that would make South Carolina, the state that resurrected his campaign in 2020 after the embarrassing defeats in Iowa and New Hampshire, the new lead-off primary state.

The RBC quickly endorsed the Biden plan. The national party offered New Hampshire a consolation prize: It could go second, along with Nevada, if it changed the state’s first-in-the-nation primary law and passed a new law expanding access to early voting. All Buckley had to do was secure letters from the Republican governor of New Hampshire, the Republican majority leader of the state Senate and the Republican majority leader of the state House promising the DNC that they would make the changes.

What the DNC got instead was a trio of letters telling the national party to pound sand.

“You can try to come and take it,” Gov. CHRIS SUNUNU said of the DNC’s effort to abolish New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation status, “but that is Never. Going. To. Happen. It’s just not in our DNA to take orders from Washington. We will not be blackmailed. We will not be threatened, and we will not give up.”

This week, prominent New Hampshire Democrats sent a letter to Biden asking him to reverse his decision. Unless Biden changes his mind, the full DNC will meet in early February to ratify the new calendar. “I’ve been on the DNC for nearly a quarter of a century,” Buckley said, “and never has the DNC voted against the wishes of an incumbent president.”

So now Buckley is in a tough spot. What do you do when you are one of the guardians of your state’s most precious political and cultural institution — the very thing that defines New Hampshire — and the president you love and the party you’ve served your whole life tell you to destroy it?

To find out, we spoke to Buckley for this week’s episode of Playbook Deep Dive, which you can listen to here.

One of the surprising conclusions from our conversation is that New Hampshire’s best shot at saving its primary is for Biden not to run for reelection, a Hail Mary prospect that some Democrats in the state are now quietly rooting for.

Buckley would not admit to being one of them, but he agreed that an open primary in 2024 would be “significant” for New Hampshire and allow the state to lure candidates and the media to cover the contest despite any threats of penalties from the DNC:

“Because it will give a candidate, maybe not the establishment’s candidate, maybe not a top-tier candidate, but it will give an opportunity for somebody to say, ‘You know what? Winning the New Hampshire primary, winning the first contest is a hell of a lot more important than getting a pat on the head by the Democratic National Committee.’

“And I have been around long enough and am familiar enough with the ins and outs that I absolutely believe that I would be able to create a process where there would be a very robust election here in New Hampshire. And I’m certainly not showing my cards.”

Key Excerpts:

Ryan Lizza: So this was a pretty stark betrayal by Biden of two very important Democratic Senators and you personally, no?

Ray Buckley: I wouldn't say to me personally. I do believe that Senator Shaheen and Senator Hassan have been among his strongest supporters in the U.S. Senate. And it was a surprise. And I think disappointment is a word that can be used. But I think stronger words are probably more appropriate.

Ryan Lizza: Do you feel President Biden betrayed you?

Ray Buckley: Me personally? No. I mean, I believe that there might be some of those early Biden supporters that signed that letter. They might feel that way to me. You know, I'm a New Hampshire Democrat. I'm used to obstacles. I'm used to being tripped up. While this is high stakes. The bottom line is, I know that there's going to be a primary. And, you know, with all due respect to the president, it's not his choice. It's the people of New Hampshire that chooses to hold the primary. They can take away our delegates, but we're still going to have the first nation primary. And I don't want Joe Biden to be the only modern day president in the last, you know, 75 years to have never won the New Hampshire primary.

Ryan Lizza: So what is your mission between now and [the DNC Rules and Bylaws committee] meeting in Philadelphia?

Ray Buckley: If we had been afforded the opportunity to have a conversation that New Hampshire was being considered to being taken out of first place, we want to make sure that everybody understands the jeopardy it puts Joe Biden and our two members of Congress, both members of our congressional were targeted by the Republicans last cycle. We could be determining whether or not we have the majority in the U.S. Congress. Both of our U.S. Senate seats make the majority. We've only got the majority by one. Whether or not we can win the open governor's race, our minority in the New Hampshire House is by two votes, and in the Senate it's by three votes. So costing all of us that when we're going to have the primary first anyways makes no sense. We want everyone to think it through… We are very concerned. Without that foundational support, we are putting the entire ticket into jeopardy in 24’.

Ryan Lizza: So everyone is moving on to the punishment phase, right? If you don't bend the knee, go seconds – it sounds like you're not, the state law is not going to be changed – then the second part of this is, okay, here are the punishments that will follow, right?

Ray Buckley: We have been very clear for decades. We have been threatened with either cutting in half of our delegates, or creating half-votes for the delegates or eliminating our delegates. Any of those suggestions and we're like, okay, we don't host the primary because we want to go to a national convention and spend a couple thousand dollars. We host the primary because we believe it's our duty and it's our responsibility and we believe that we provide a service to the country.


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