Saturday, February 18, 2023

New Hampshire Senate Republicans Add a New Layer to Budding 2024 Delegate Fight

The year is young and yet the multi-front battle between a variety of interests in New Hampshire and the Democratic National Committee (DNC) simmers on. 

National Republicans kept the presidential primary in the Granite state in its first-in-the-nation position for 2024. Democrats did not. And while the vocal proponents of the first-in-the-nation primary on both sides of the aisle in New Hampshire have stepped forward to vigorously defend that status, the various state-level actors involved are differently constrained in a matter that highlights well the complexities of a nomination system steeped in federalism and stretched across both governments and political parties. Republicans in the Granite state, for example, feel emboldened while the New Hampshire Democratic Party is stuck between a state law -- and the status it creates for the presidential primary -- and a national party that has taken formal steps to knock the contest from its typical perch in the process. 

But that does not mean Democrats in the state are powerless. Those in the state Senate joined Republicans in unanimously advancing a resolution defending the primary. That was not a move without risks for Democrats in the state. Non-binding though that resolution may have been, the fact that state Senate Democrats supported it en masse could be viewed by the DNC Rules and Bylaws Committee (DNCRBC) as another datapoint -- another act of defiance -- that continues to build a case against New Hampshire Democrats. That case may ultimately lead to increased penalties on the New Hampshire Democratic delegation should the party allocate delegates based on a primary that is presumed to go rogue in 2024.

However, that symbolic gesture may be as far as New Hampshire Democrats in the state government are willing to go. None of them signed on to new legislation introduced this week and sponsored by the entire Republican Senate caucus. It is one thing for Granite state Democrats to support the first-in-the-nation status of the New Hampshire presidential primary in spirit, but Republicans have now moved on to second order issues in the process in an effort to shore up the operation of the FITN franchise. 

All 14 New Hampshire Senate Republicans this week introduced SB 271, legislation that moves to protect delegates allocated and selected using the results of the presidential primary, rogue or not.

Here is the text [additions to existing law in bold italics]:
Delegates to National Party Conventions. Amend RSA 653:5 to read as follows:

653:5 Delegates to National Party Conventions. At every presidential primary election, the voters of the state shall vote their preference for party candidates for president and thereby choose the delegates to each presidential nominating convention to which the state is entitled. The New Hampshire delegates so selected shall be seated and have complete voting rights at any national party nominating convention.
That proposed change is apparently a bridge (of defiance) too far for state Senate Democrats, at least in terms of sponsoring the legislation. [Whether support is withheld during subsequent steps of the bill's consideration throughout the legislative process has yet to be seen.] In the near term, this is a costless act for Senate Republicans to attempt to advance this bill. The primary maintains its protection under current Republican National Committee (RNC) rules, and it matters little that there may be a law requiring delegates selected through the compliant primary to be seated at the Republican National Convention. 

It is New Hampshire Democrats who would be drawn into further conflict with the Democratic National Committee if this bill is adopted and signed into law. 

But here is the thing. The catch here is that this sort of legislation, if it ever becomes law, is unlikely to withstand any sort of legal challenge. A national convention determines the rules that govern it and the delegates/delegations that participate in it. State law does not; not in a direct way or as the final say in any event. 

National parties set the rules for a nomination process and then states -- both state governments and state parties -- react to that guidance. In the vast majority of cases state laws and state party rules conform to the national party guidelines. Sometimes they do not. And when they fail to -- when a primary is too early or delegates are allocated in a prohibited manner -- there is a price to pay. National parties have contingencies if not penalties in place to deal with state parties operating in such rogue state scenarios. Moreover, national parties further frown on state parties and affiliated actors in state governments who flaunt the national rules. This is the position Senate Democrats in New Hampshire are in with this legislation. It is one thing to symbolically defend the first-in-the-nation primary, but it is another to attempt to dictate to a national party/national convention how to run part of its process. Courts usually side with the parties in these situations over state law. The parties, after all, retain the first amendment right to freedom of association and that tends to prevail in these sorts of state law versus party rules disputes.

But there is a state law already protecting the primary in New Hampshire that conflicts with national party rules on the Democratic side now too.1 That, too, would seemingly invite a potential court challenge now. Perhaps, but the timing of these things -- the different parts of New Hampshire state law overlapping with the national party rules -- is different. A rogue primary is one thing. There are penalties in place to deal with that and those issues are typically dealt with prior to the commencement of a national convention. See, for example, the Florida and Michigan situation from 2008. 

Dictating in state law whether particular delegates shall be seated at a national convention run by a national party is another thing altogether. While the action of allocating and selecting the delegates happens well in advance of a national convention, the seating part obviously happens at said convention. The window for action is much smaller. And obviously -- and perhaps most importantly -- there are enforcement issues involved. Who under this proposed law is going to make the Democratic National Convention seat those delegates? Well, in the short window of time between any credentials fight over a rogue New Hampshire delegation, potentially at the convention in question, and a presidential candidate being nominated, the courts may be asked to step in. But again, those courts are likely to defer to the national party on the matter. 

And the last thing New Hampshire Republicans likely want to do is invite scrutiny of any law in the Granite state that defines nomination processes in conflict with national party rules. That sets a precedent that possibly undermines New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation status even more in future cycles. 

SB 271 may or may not ultimately go anywhere. It is Republican-sponsored legislation in a Republican-controlled state government. But at the outset, it is another symbolic measure that puts state Democrats even more on the defensive. In other words, it is good politics locally, but is unlikely to carry weight outside the borders of the Granite state or in the long term if implemented. 

1 The first-in-the-nation primary law that has been in place since 1975 in New Hampshire has not directly come into conflict with national party rules since 1984 and has been directly protect in DNC rules in every cycle since. ...until 2024.

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