First challenge of ’16 cycle: Vermont bill would set its primary on the same day as NH

As New Hampshire celebrates the 100th anniversary of its presidential primary, suddenly, a challenge to its leadoff status has cropped up – from right next door.


A bill has been introduced in the Vermont State Senate that would set the date of the Vermont primary on the same day as the New Hampshire Primary. The bill emerged today, in the same week Granite State politicos and observers were looking ahead one year to a likely primary date of Feb. 9, 2016.


As recently as two days ago, there had appeared to be no challenges on the horizon to the New Hampshire’s leadoff status. But now comes Senate Bill 76 in Montpelier.


It is sponsored by State Sen. Anthony Pollina, listed as a Progressive/Democrat from North Middlesex. He could not be immediately reached for comment, so it is unclear if the bill aimed at promoting the potential candidacy of liberal Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who is seriously considering running for the Democratic presidential nomination.


New Hampshire law, of course, provides that the first-in-the-nation primary must be held at least seven days of any “similar election.” Secretary of State William Gardner is charged with ensuring that the seven-day window is adhered to, and over his nearly 40 years in the position, he has dealt with numerous challenges to the state’s coveted position.


Not only has Gardner outmaneuvered political parties in states that have tried to set nominating elections that encroach on New Hampshire, but several states have even passed laws to that effect. Yet, in each case the challenge has been unsuccessful. Gardner has set the date as early as necessary to uphold the law. And in two cases in which Delaware officials tried to hold primaries just four days after New Hampshire, the political parties, working with Gardner, secured the cooperation of candidates not to file their candidacies in the state.


And as blogger Josh Putnam points out in his Frontloading HQ web site and as this reporter has witnessed several times, Gardner is an expert at waiting states out and scheduling the New Hampshire primary ahead of other states and quickly printing ballots.


In this case, however, the power may rest with the political parties. Both have enacted strict sanctions against any state other than New Hampshire, Iowa, South Carolina and Nevada, that holds a primary or caucus before March 1, 2016.


The Democratic National Committee calendar specifically sets Iowa for Feb. 1 and New Hampshire for eight days later, on Feb. 9, with Nevada and South Carolina to follow, also in February. The Republican National Committee calendar does not set specific dates but states that no early state can hold its event prior to Feb. 1 and no other state can hold an event prior to March 1.


Any other state that holds a caucus or primary prior to March 1 will be severely sanctioned. As the New Hampshire Journal has reported, the Democratic National Committee’s rules say, as they said for the 2012 election, that any state that jumps ahead of March 1 (or in the case of the early states, ahead of the dates set out in February) will lose half their delegates to the DNC’s convention. And candidates who campaign in a “rogue” state would not receive any delegates from that state.


The DNC reserves the right to stiffen the penalties and further reduce the number of delegates, at the discretion of its Rules and Bylaws Committee, for states that still refuse to play by the rules. It can also reduce the number of delegates on key convention committees or change a delegation’s seating arrangements at the convention or even its hotel location.


The RNC has sharply upgraded its penalties so that now, any state that jumps ahead will be penalized not just 50 percent – but 90 percent — of its delegates.


It is not immediately clear to what degree the Vermont bill has support in that state’s Legislature or if it has the backing of Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin, a Democrat, or the major political parties’ leaderships.


But if it does happen to become law it will mean that the political parties support it and are willing to have their delegations severely reduced. If that doesn’t work, then the next step could be for the leaders of the political parties in New Hampshire — and nationally – to begin to secure pledges from the candidates that they will not campaign there.


One of the more memorable challenges ended without success in 1996, with the help of then-President Bill Clinton. Delaware Republicans and Democrats were intent on holding their own primary just four days after the first-in-the-nation primary, disregarding the New Hampshire state law.


In June 1995, Clinton told this reporter in an interview that he’d do what he could to convince Delaware officials to back off.


Republican candidates pledged one after another not to campaign or file their candidacies in Delaware. But the big blow to the upstart effort came when incumbent Clinton also refused to file in Delaware.


Clinton’s move allowed Gardner to declare the Delaware primary “some depraved version of a kangaroo straw poll” and not a “similar election” under New Hampshire law. Delaware held an election four days after New Hampshire, but few outside of Delaware noticed.


Should Vermont pursue this challenge, will Hillary Clinton come to the rescue – 20 years later – and refuse to file her candidacy there? Given the history between New Hampshire and Clintons, that would seem likely.

Author: John DiStaso

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