Tuesday, February 16, 2021

Nevada Legislation Would Establish January Presidential Primary, but it's Flawed

Often there are few secrets in politics. And at least a couple of things are quite clear in the Democratic maneuvering in the midst of the evolving 2024 invisible primary. 
  1. Within the broader Democratic Party coalition there is some dissatisfaction with Iowa and New Hampshire continuing to lead off the presidential primary calendar. How large that faction is and the level of pressure it can bring on decision makers over the next year and a half remains to be seen. But it is a position that was recently given voice (again) by former DNC Chair Tom Perez.
  2. Nevada -- both Democratic lawmakers and the state Democratic Party -- have made no secret that they will challenge the calendar status quo
Those two realities may or may not ever converge, but the latter took some shape yesterday with the introduction of the legislation in the Nevada Assembly -- the Silver state's lower chamber -- to create a separate presidential primary election and schedule it for the Tuesday before the last Tuesday in January of a presidential election year. [In 2024, that would fall on January 23.]

But here is the thing: AB 126 is a retread for the most part. It resurrects -- at least with respect to the scheduling aspects of the bill -- Republican-sponsored bills from the 2013 and 2015 state legislative sessions that went nowhere. And they went nowhere because both were materially the same and were equally as flawed. 

One could ask, "Flawed how?" But before diving in to that question, it is appropriate to explore what the goals are with each bill. The previous Republican bills that sought to create a January presidential primary for the 2016 cycle did not aim to be first on the calendar per se, but to be first in the West. The aim of the Democratic sponsors -- Assembly Speaker Jason Frierson (D-8th, Clark), Assemblywoman Teresa Benitez-Thompson (D-27th, Washoe) and Assemblywoman Brittney Miller (D-5th, Clark) -- in 2021 is different. This latest attempt to jump into January is an attempt at being first, not first-in-the-West but first-in-the-nation.

That goal and this bill are not well aligned. 

As written, this bill certainly protects Nevada as the first state to hold a delegate selection event in the West. It even empowers the secretary of state to reschedule the newly established presidential primary for an even earlier date than the Tuesday preceding the last Tuesday in January if another western state plans to hold an event earlier than that. [The secretary of state in consultation with the Legislative Council could schedule the presidential primary for as early as January 2.] But that list of states does not include New Hampshire (or Iowa for that matter). 

If left unamended, this bill (if it becomes law) would leave the state of Nevada impotent in dealing with New Hampshire, impotent in its challenge to first-in-the-nation status. Yes, folks in the Granite state will raise the state law that requires the New Hampshire primary to be at least seven days before any other similar contest. But that requirement is next to useless without empowering an actor who can pull the trigger on a scheduling decision on a moment's notice. New Hampshire has been adept at staying first because the secretary of state makes the scheduling decision and not a state legislature. Bill Gardner, the New Hampshire secretary of state, can do what he always does with states seeking to threaten New Hampshire's status: Wait them out and schedule the New Hampshire primary at time when state legislatures often are not in session and late enough to make it difficult for said legislature to respond quickly enough and still manage a presidential primary election effectively. 

Gardner would have no problem waiting until mid- to late November 2023 to leapfrog Nevada into mid-January, all the while knowing the Nevada legislature would have no real recourse.

The other problem with this bill is likely its specificity in view of the national parties and their rules on delegate selection. Nevada holds a privileged position on the primary calendar, codified in both national parties' sets of delegate selection rules. This bill as currently written would violate those rules. No, neither party has finalized their rules for the 2024 nomination process, but a January primary set this early on runs the risk of drawing the ire of the national parties as they are in the process of settling on those rules. Setting a date for late January is a provocation. On the Democratic side would cost the Nevada Democratic Party half of its delegation and candidates who campaign there any share of those reduced delegates they have won in the rogue primary. In the Republican process, the Nevada Republican Party would be subject to the super penalty if it opted into a January presidential primary. That would reduce the Nevada Republican delegation to just six delegates.

But again, those national rules are not set yet. However, by forcing the issue and scheduling a January primary now (as this bill would do), any goodwill Nevada may have in either party may dissipate; any desire to change course at the front of the calendar may not disappear, but it may no longer include Nevada. 

Then what recourse does an aspiring first-in-the-nation state like Nevada have? 

Well, bear in mind that AB 126 is just the introduced version of this legislation. It can be amended. And if the state is going to successfully challenge New Hampshire for first-in-the-nation status it will have to be. 

First, it would likely prove fruitful in dealing with New Hampshire and the national parties to leave the date of the newly created primary unsettled for now. This is something FHQ raised in a recent piece. In other words, create the presidential primary, but do not set a date. At least on the Democratic side, that gets Nevada even further in the good graces of a national party that more and more values primaries over caucuses. But by not setting a date for the election, it also does not agitate the decision-makers in the national party as they are determining the rules for the next nomination process. Such a move demonstrates that the state is serious about a defining principle within the party now -- increased participation -- while also making it known that it may be a preferable first state. 

Second, in dealing with New Hampshire specifically, not setting a date is just common sense. If the legislature sets a date now, then New Hampshire is just going to jump that later at a time that is maximally convenient for the preservation of its own first-in-the-nation status. Ideally, Nevada would want to replicate what New Hampshire does: cede the date-setting authority to one actor who can more quickly and nimbly decide on a date for the presidential primary. Furthermore, if by that point in 2023, Nevada has the backing of the DNC to be the first state -- no sure thing -- then the secretary of state or whichever actor has been empowered by the hypothetical new law can set the date for the first position without fear of sanction from the national party. Those sights may at that time be turned on New Hampshire

Granted, there are a lot of ifs built into that timeline but it is by far a better course of action in challenging New Hampshire and making a case to be first-in-the-nation than this bill that the Assembly rolled out in Carson City a day ago. 

If you come for the king, you best not miss. And AB 126 misses as currently written. It comes nowhere close to meeting the goals that either the bill or the Democratic Party in Nevada has laid out.

A link to this legislation has been added to the 2024 FHQ presidential primary calendar.

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