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Pushback greets effort to give South Carolina first ’24 primary

Clyburn: Critics more interested in ‘ego’ than winning White House

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn said South Carolina has shown it is a proving ground for presidential candidates in both parties.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn said South Carolina has shown it is a proving ground for presidential candidates in both parties. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

New Hampshire Democrats said they won’t easily cede their state’s “first in the nation” status on the presidential primary calendar to a proposal by President Joe Biden to move South Carolina to the front of the line in 2024. 

But South Carolina Rep. James E. Clyburn, the House majority whip, said Democrats in the Granite State should recognize that South Carolina has been a better proving ground for presidential candidates who go on to win the White House. 

“It all depends where their interest might be. If you’re more interested in your ego, that’s one thing. If you’re more interested in success as a party, that’s another thing,” Clyburn said.

The Democratic National Committee Rules and Bylaws Committee on Friday adopted a resolution that would have South Carolina leapfrog Iowa and New Hampshire and hold the first presidential nominating contest of the cycle on Feb. 3, 2024. Under the proposal, New Hampshire and Nevada would go next on Feb. 6, followed by Georgia on Feb. 13 and Michigan on Feb. 27. The schedule, which was modified from an earlier proposal, still needs to be approved by the full DNC.

The change would push Iowa — a state in which Democrats last month lost their last House seat and got crushed by 12 points in a Senate race they had hoped would be competitive — out of the early state calendar entirely. The move comes after the party’s embarrassing caucuses in 2020 that led to delayed results

Biden also proposed that states hold primary elections, rather than caucuses.

The changes are intended to emphasize more diversity in early nominating contests, which bring candidates — and a boost to the local economy — to those areas. Census estimates for 2021 showed South Carolina was 69 percent white and Nevada 73 percent, compared with 90 percent for Iowa and 93 percent for New Hampshire.

New Hampshire Democrats immediately criticized the proposed change, suggesting they don’t plan to follow it even if the party adopts it, noting the requirement to hold the nation’s first primary is set in state law.

“I’m hoping that the committee will take some time to deliberate, and I feel confident that we’ll move forward with the New Hampshire primary, the tradition that we’ve established,” Rep. Ann McLane Kuster told reporters. “We have great participation, we have great results — they come in in a timely way so that a winner is declared and people have confidence. And it’s an important tradition that’s stood the test of time, and we’re going to continue to make our case to the committee.”

Iowa Republicans said the DNC would be making a mistake if it boots the state from its early schedule. Sen. Charles E. Grassley said in a statement that the move would “further alienate rural Americans from the Democrat Party,” and he urged the state Democratic Party to move forward with its own plans, similar to what he said the state Republican Party would do. 

When states previously tried to set their own place in the schedule, the party pushed back. In 2008, the Democratic National Committee sought to punish Florida and Michigan for moving their primaries to dates earlier in the cycle than those in the schedule outlined by the party. The party ultimately decided to seat delegates from both states’ primary results but to give them only half a vote each.

Clyburn acknowledged that discrepancies between when the two parties hold primaries may need to be figured out, but said he thought Republicans may also want South Carolina to lead the schedule because of their party’s record in the state. He pointed to George W. Bush defeating Sen. John McCain in South Carolina’s Republican primary in 2000 and going on to serve as president for two terms. He also said Democratic Sen. Barack Obama was “dead in the water” coming out of New Hampshire in 2008 before he won South Carolina’s Democratic primary and later the White House. Biden’s story was similar in 2020, and the move to change the primary calendar is seen as a clear sign he is planning to run for a second term. 

“South Carolina is almost a laboratory for the country when it comes to various political agendas,” Clyburn said.

But Democrats in other states also said South Carolina, which has two Republican senators and Clyburn as the only Democrat in a seven-member House delegation, shouldn’t go first. In a tweet, Nevada Democratic Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto said the proposal “disregards the broad coalition of national organizations and leaders calling for Nevada to go first, and instead elevates a state that doesn’t actually align with @TheDemocrats own priorities for updating the calendar.”

Hawaii Sen. Mazie K. Hirono also said she was in favor of Nevada leading off the nominating process. The Congressional Hispanic Caucus BOLD PAC has also said Nevada, where Democrats hold both Senate seats and three of the four House seats after intensely competitive races this year, should go first. 

Rep. Susie Lee said she would continue to fight for Nevada to have the first-in-the-nation status. 

“Nevada represents the rising electorate in this nation,” she said. “It’s a purple state. I say that elections are about time and resources, and early on spending your resources, honing your message to an electorate that’s actually going to be the electorate that gets you across the finish line. Starting your campaign in a state like Nevada, I think, is important.”

Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, who said she has worked for 30 years to move her state into the early nominating window, said she expects the fight to continue beyond this weekend into February, when the schedule would officially be approved by the full Democratic National Committee.  

“This is not done until February,” she said. “When we win, there will still be people that’ll still be fighting back.”

She said the proposed schedule reflects the diversity of the country and focuses on states where candidates will be participating in retail politics. She pointed to this year’s competitive congressional races, including Cortez Masto’s reelection, which guaranteed Democrats would keep control of the chamber.

“You saw what happened in Nevada — it’s one of the most competitive states. We’re watching Georgia play out [in a Senate runoff], and Michigan is a purple state that has the diversity of the country,” Dingell said. Biden, she added, is “sending a strong message that we need presidential primary candidates to have to campaign and talk about issues that are the issues that decide the election in November.”

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