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With Swag and Swagger, State Democrats Vie for Front of Presidential Primary Line


WASHINGTON — High-ranking Democrats distributed gift bags and glossy pamphlets, waxing poetic about New Hampshire’s Manchester Airport and the New Jersey Turnpike.

Midwestern manners barely masked a deepening rivalry between Michigan and Minnesota.

And state leaders deployed spirited surrogate operations and slickly produced advertisements as they barreled into a high-stakes process that will determine the most consequential phase of the Democratic presidential nominating calendar.

After Iowa’s disastrous 2020 Democratic caucuses, in which the nation’s longtime leadoff caucus state struggled for days to deliver results, members of the Democratic National Committee are weighing drastic changes to how the party picks its presidential candidates. The most significant step in that process so far unfolded this week, as senators, governors and Democratic chairs from across the country traipsed through a Washington conference room to pitch members of a key party committee on their visions for the 2024 primary calendar.

Democratic state parties have formed alliances, enlisted Republicans — and in Michigan’s case, turned to the retired basketball star Isiah Thomas — as they argued for major changes to the traditional process or strained to defend their early-state status.

“Tradition is not a good enough reason to preserve the status quo,” said the narrators of Nevada’s video, as state officials bid to hold the first nominating contest. “Our country is changing. Our party is changing. The way we choose our nominee — that has to change, too.”

Four states have kicked off the Democratic presidential nominating contest in recent years: early-state stalwarts Iowa and New Hampshire, followed by Nevada and South Carolina. But Iowa has faced sharp criticism over both the 2020 debacle and its lack of diversity, and in private conversations this week, Democrats grappled with whether Iowa belonged among the first four states at all.

Mindful of the criticism, Iowa officials on Thursday proposed overhauling their caucus system, typically an in-person event that goes through multiple rounds of elimination. Instead, officials said, the presidential preference portion of the contest could be conducted primarily by mail or drop-offs of preference cards, with Iowans selecting just one candidate to support.

“In order to continue growing our party, we need to make changes,” acknowledged Ross Wilburn, the Iowa Democratic Party chairman.

But the plan drew skeptical questions from some committee members who suggested it might amount to a caucus in name only, and really more of a primary. That would butt it up against New Hampshire, which has passed legislation aimed at stopping other states from pre-empting its first-in-the-nation primary.

New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada are generally expected to remain as early states, though the process is fluid and the order is up for debate, with Nevada directly challenging New Hampshire’s position on the calendar, a move the Granite State is unlikely to take lightly.

In swag bags from New Hampshire’s delegation, which included maple syrup and a mug from the state’s popular Red Arrow Diner, there was also a brochure noting the history of New Hampshire’s primary, dating to 1916. And in a sign of how seriously New Hampshire takes being the first primary, both of the state’s U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, were on hand to make the case.

“You cannot win a race in New Hampshire without speaking directly to voters, and listening and absorbing their concerns,” Ms. Hassan said, arguing for the benefits of having Democratic presidential contenders submit to the scrutiny of the small state’s famously discerning voters.

The committee could weigh many permutations for the order of the states. It is also possible that the D.N.C.’s Rules and Bylaws Committee will recommend adding a fifth early-state slot as large, diverse states including Georgia bid for consideration.

The committee is slated to make its recommendations in August, with final approval at the D.N.C.’s meeting in September.

Earlier this year, the committee adopted a framework that emphasized racial, ethnic, geographic and economic diversity and labor representation; raised questions about feasibility; and stressed the importance of general election competitiveness. Some committee members this week also alluded to concerns about holding early contests in states where Republican election deniers hold, or may win, high state offices.

Sixteen states and Puerto Rico made the cut to present this week, from New Jersey and Illinois to Washington State and Connecticut.

The search process comes just over two years after President Biden came in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire but won the nomination on the strength of later-voting and more diverse states. The White House’s potential preferences in the process would be significant.

“They know where we’re at,” said Gov. Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan, asked on Wednesday if she had spoken with Mr. Biden or the White House about Michigan’s bid. “I haven’t had a direct conversation, but our teams converse regularly.”

She also said she had made “a number of phone calls to voice my support and urge the committee to strongly consider us.”

Behind-the-scenes lobbying efforts of committee members and other stakeholders are expected to intensify in the coming weeks.

The most pitched battle concerns representation from the Midwest, especially if Iowa loses its early-state slot. Michigan, Minnesota and Illinois are vying to emerge as the new Midwestern early-state standard-bearer. Michigan and Minnesota are thought to be favored over Illinois for reasons of both cost and general election competitiveness, though Illinois also made a forceful presentation, led by officials including Senator Dick Durbin.

“The Minnesota Lutheran in us — if you do a good deed and talk about it, it doesn’t count — but we’re getting over that and talking about it,” said Gov. Tim Walz of Minnesota, whose Democratic colleagues kicked off their presentation with a song by Prince and distributed Senator Amy Klobuchar’s recipe for hot dish.

Ken Martin, the chairman of the Minnesota Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, grappled head-on with concerns around diversity and relevance in a general election.

“We’re going to disabuse you of two things: One, that we’re just a bunch of Scandinavians with no diversity, and two, that we’re not a competitive state,” he said, as his team distributed thick pamphlets highlighting the state’s racial and geographic diversity, including its rural population.

Michigan’s presenters included Senator Debbie Stabenow and Representative Debbie Dingell, who signed handwritten notes to committee members. One read, “Michigan is the best place to pick a president!” Their gift bags featured local delicacies like dried cherries, and beer koozies commemorating the inauguration of Ms. Whitmer and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist II, a party spokesman said.

“We have the clearest and best case that Michigan is an actual battleground, the most diverse battleground in the country,” Mr. Gilchrist said in an interview, calling it “a down payment on an apparatus for the general election.”

Likewise, Ms. Dingell and Ms. Stabenow emphasized opportunities for retail politicking and the chance for candidates to familiarize themselves early with the concerns of one of the country’s biggest contested states.

Both Minnesota and Michigan require varying degrees of cooperation from Republicans in order to move their primaries up. Minnesota officials were quick to note that they must simply convince the state Republican Party. Michigan requires the approval of the Republican-controlled state Legislature. Presenters from both states were questioned about the feasibility of getting the other side on board.

Minnesota released a list of Republicans who support moving up the state’s contest, including former Gov. Tim Pawlenty and former Senator Norm Coleman. Members of Michigan’s delegation noted the backing they had from former Republican chairs and organizations like the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The Detroit News reported later Thursday that the Republican majority leader of the State Senate, Mike Shirkey, had indicated support for moving up Michigan’s primary, a significant development.

(Officials from the two states were also asked about their plans for dealing with wintry weather. They emphasized their hardiness.)

By contrast, Emanuel Chris Welch, the speaker of the Illinois House of Representatives, pointedly said that “in Illinois, there is no chance that Republican obstruction will distract, delay or deter us” from moving up the state’s primary.

Some of Mr. Biden’s closest allies were also present on Thursday as his home state, Delaware, made the case for hosting an early primary.

In an interview, Senator Chris Coons insisted that he had not discussed the prospect with Mr. Biden and that he was not speaking on the president’s behalf. But, he said: “Our state leadership is doing what I think is in Delaware’s best interest. And I can’t imagine that he wouldn’t be happy with the outcome.”





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