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Democrats prepare to upend presidential primary calendar

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The list of states with the biggest say in Democratic presidential contests could get a big shake-up this week.

A flurry of public and private lobbying to reformat the longtime early-state lineup of Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina kicked off again after the midterms, with the Democratic National Committee’s group reviewing the order set to meet later this week. Key Democratic leaders have been bombarded with phone calls and memos in recent days, while some elected officials, like Sen. Catherine Cortez Masto (D-Nev.), took their state’s case to the cable news airwaves.

The behind-the-scenes jockeying has intensified, but the most important player in the drama — the White House — has remained tight-lipped about how the schedule should shake out, according to several Democratic operatives involved in the process.

States like Michigan and Minnesota are trying to push in, while Nevada is making a play for first-in-the-nation status over New Hampshire. The committee has still left open the possibility of adding a fifth calendar to the slate, while it’s also been suggested that two states could hold their contests on the same day. It’s unclear just how much will change. But there is at least one clear preference from many Democratic leaders, both outside and inside these party deliberations: that Iowa be scrapped from its coveted first slot.

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“I don’t think there’s any way Iowa stays and there’s no reason for Iowa to stay,” said one Democrat familiar with the process of the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, the group charged with reordering the calendar. “From an electoral standpoint, we’ve lost Iowa completely.”

Later this week, the rules committee will meet again in Washington, D.C., to discuss the issue. They’re expected to move forward with a proposal for the 2024 presidential nominating calendar at the meeting, according to sources familiar with the agenda, which will then go before the full DNC for a vote in late January or early February.

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But there is frustration among some DNC members about the silence from the White House.

“If the president says he wants this state or that state in the early window, then I’m going to support it because he’s the leader of the party and I would imagine every other [rules committee] member feels the same way,” said one DNC member, who was granted anonymity to speak candidly. “So, it’s frustrating when we’ve invested all this time, energy and money into this whole process and the White House has given us nothing, even though we’re only days away from making a decision.”

“It’s almost like Kabuki theater,” the person continued.

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Some of the outstanding questions facing the DNC were reshaped by November’s midterm results.

One is which state would replace Iowa, representing the Midwestern region in the early-state lineup. Both Michigan and Minnesota are seen as leading contenders for the slot, positions that were further strengthened by the November results. Democrats flipped both of Michigan’s state legislative chambers and reelected Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, while Democrats in Minnesota also gained trifecta control there by flipping the state Senate and reelecting Gov. Tim Walz.

Those victories clear the way for both states to legislatively change the date of their primaries, removing logistical hurdles they would have faced without those results. Walz, along with other state leaders, sent a letter to DNC members this month confirming his state party’s commitment to pass such legislation, arguing that Minnesota “is a highly representative approximation of the country, paired with a robust state and local party infrastructure, an engaged electorate, and a logistical and financial advantage for campaigns.”

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Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.), who has led her state’s charge to move up in the nominating calendar, said she’d make moving into the early window her “primary focus” in a letter to her state’s central committee, seeking their support for her bid for an open seat on the DNC.

“Key groups that Democrats need to persuade and turn out to win national elections are the backbone of our state,” Dingell wrote in her letter. “Michigan is the most diverse battleground state, and a microcosm of America.”

Several DNC members said they think Michigan currently holds an edge over Minnesota. But Michigan may face pushback due to its larger size, given that the committee has said it plans to prioritize states where it would be feasible for lesser-known candidates to campaign and win.

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“The big hesitation that those of us who are pro-Michigan will hear is: Are they too big? Will they dwarf the other three?” said another DNC member. “But Michigan did everything we said they needed to do to get in.”

Michigan supporters note that the state features several less-expensive media markets, like Flint and Grand Rapids. But Detroit, a far larger market, would still require millions of dollars in spending on the part of presidential campaigns to get the word out to voters.

Iowa, for its part, is still putting up a fight. Iowa Democratic Party Chair Ross Wilburn sent a letter to the Rules and Bylaws Committee on Monday evening, outlining his party’s plans for an “all-mail vote expression of presidential preference” — an effort to simplify a convoluted and difficult caucus system that imploded in 2020, when efforts to tabulate the results broke down on caucus night.

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“It’s critical that rural states like Iowa have a voice” and the party “cannot abandon an entire group of voters in the heart of the Midwest without doing damage to the party for a generation,” Wilburn wrote in the letter, which was obtained by POLITICO.

But Iowa, a predominantly white state that’s trending increasingly Republican, does not fit well into the criteria set out by the DNC, which aimed to prioritize racially, economically and geographically diverse states that are competitive in general elections.

That’s part of Nevada’s pitch to leapfrog New Hampshire, should Iowa lose its influential perch atop the calendar. In a memo to DNC members, Nevada Democrats argued that its small yet diverse population, as well as its narrow margins in general elections, proves its relevance to the early window.

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“Nevada going first will help Democrats win future presidential elections, more so than any other state under consideration,” wrote Rebecca Lambe, a former top adviser to the late Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

New Hampshire, meanwhile, can also argue its small size and close general election history has yielded strong presidential contenders for a century. It also leans heavily on its own state laws, which mandate that it is the first-in-the-nation primary state and give officials latitude to change the primary date year to year to make sure it stays that way.

New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley told WMUR that he doesn’t believe the committee will approve drastic changes based on “my conversations with members,” he said.

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Whatever the DNC decides to do, it will represent a fundamental break with Republicans, after nearly two decades of a fairly linked calendar.

Earlier this year, the Republican National Committee voted to reaffirm its current lineup of early states: Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina and Nevada. Should a state try to jump the line, the RNC would sanction those states by removing some of their delegates.

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