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Biden foils Nevada’s first-in-the-nation bid, relegates Silver State to second

Gabby Birenbaum
Gabby Birenbaum

Democratic National Committee members voted Friday to make Nevada the second presidential primary in the nation, setting a proposed nominating calendar that would have Nevada and New Hampshire hold primary elections three days after new first-in-the-nation state South Carolina.

President Joe Biden upended Nevada’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary bid Thursday night, successfully convincing Democratic National Committee members to make South Carolina the party’s first contest.

Biden’s proposal – first reported in The Washington Post – would elevate South Carolina from fourth in the lineup to first, and then hold the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries concurrently a week later. He also advocated for Iowa to be dropped from the early slate completely, instead elevating Georgia to fourth and closing with Michigan, before moving on to Super Tuesday.

The DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC) moved Nevada and New Hampshire closer to South Carolina’s primary date at the suggestion of Nevada’s committee member Artie Blanco, a Nevadan who works for the AFL-CIO, but passed the schedule order that Biden wanted. South Carolina will hold its primary on Saturday, Feb. 3, with Nevada and New Hampshire to follow on Tuesday, Feb. 6. Georgia will follow on Feb. 13, and Michigan is poised to close out the early slate on Feb. 27.

Given that both Nevada and South Carolina have early voting, in effect, Nevadans will be casting the nation’s first ballots, along with early voters in the other early states.

“While not ideal to be on the same day as another state, we accept that and accept what the will of the president is,” Blanco said.

The move surprised Nevada and New Hampshire advocates alike, who assumed the DNC’s decision would come down to their two states. South Carolina had flown under the radar as a potential first primary. Though the state’s significant Black population would contribute to the DNC’s stated preference for diversity, it’s a safely Republican state, thereby falling short of the DNC’s competitiveness criteria — one of the main marks against Iowa, another red state.

In a joint statement Thursday night, Nevada’s Democratic Sens. Jacky Rosen and Catherine Cortez Masto criticized the president’s proposal as out of step with the criteria the DNC set for the early slate.

“We strongly believe the first presidential nominating contest should be held in a competitive, pro-labor state that supports voting access and reflects all of America’s diversity – in other words, a state that actually aligns with the DNC’s own priorities for updating the calendar,” the senators said. “This proposed new order for the early states disregards the broad coalition of national organizations and leaders calling for Nevada to go first, and instead elevates a state that doesn’t meet the criteria to start off this process.”

“We hope this proposal is amended and improved to address these serious concerns,” they continued.

Nevada’s Democratic legislative leaders went further, calling Biden’s proposal “flawed” and promising to hold their primary on the first Tuesday in February – the traditional date of the Iowa Caucus – regardless. 

“We strongly disagree with President Biden’s proposed new order of early presidential nominating states,” Nevada Senate Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro and Nevada Assembly Speaker-Elect Steve Yeager said in a joint statement. “Regardless of this recommended calendar, our new presidential primary will be held on February 6th in 2024 and will continue to be held on the first Tuesday in February in future election cycles. We have no plans to change that date.”

New Hampshire Democrats, similarly incensed by the report, also said they would change their primary date to be first-in-the-nation regardless, in accordance with state law – “this status is independent of the President's proposal or any political organization,” Sen. Maggie Hassan said on Twitter.

State legislatures are responsible for setting the date of their presidential primaries and caucuses, but the DNC can penalize states that ignore their calendar by revoking their delegates at presidential nominating conventions — an action it took against Michigan and Florida in 2008, when they held their contests ahead of the DNC’s schedule. But state legislatures are responsible for moving the date of their primary to the DNC’s preferred date — a law that would take the cooperation of Republican majorities and governors in South Carolina and Georgia.

Republicans have committed to leaving the traditional Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, South Carolina early slate in order for 2024.

Now that the White House weighed in, the DNC’s Rules and Bylaws Committee (RBC), which began meeting Thursday and will continue through Saturday, was expected to respect the wishes of their party’s leader. The proposed calendar will go to the full DNC for a vote in 2023. Only two committee members voted against the new calendar – Iowa’s Scott Brennan, and New Hampshire’s Joanne Dowdell.

At Friday’s RBC meeting, Blanco called the calendar change the “final piece” of the late Sen. Harry Reid’s legacy, but requested an adjustment to the proposal. She asked that South Carolina, which traditionally votes on a Saturday, be moved up to the first Saturday in February, and Nevada retain its position on the first Tuesday, based on a law passed in 2021. In 2024, the first Saturday falls before the first Tuesday, meaning that South Carolina would still go first. 

“It’s still in the spirit of what the future of the party looks like and what the President reflected that he wanted,” Blanco said in an interview. “I want to be respectful of that process.”

Blanco also said that holding the New Hampshire and Nevada primaries on the same date would send a negative message to Nevada’s large Latino population.

“If we want to build a stronger relationship with Latinos….then Nevada must stand alone on a date,” Blanco told the committee.

Though she read the long list of Nevada’s endorsers and spoke to the importance of Nevada’s diverse voting population, the RBC only honored the first part of her request. Washington’s David McDonald, however, asked that Western states, including Nevada, be given more consideration for future cycles and expressed concern about the shared date with New Hampshire. 

In an open letter to the RBC, Biden asked for the early state calendar to be changed to avoid both predominantly white states and states that hold caucuses — a double blow to Iowa, whose Democratic Party, despite slamming Biden’s request, lost their early spot.

“We must ensure that voters of color have a voice in choosing our nominee much earlier in the process and throughout the entire early window,” Biden said. “You cannot be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you have overwhelming support from voters of color – and that includes Black, Brown and Asian American & Pacific Islander voters. You should not be the Democratic nominee and win a general election unless you show working class Americans that you will fight for them and their families.”

Many of the points Biden made in his letter could apply to Nevada as easily as they could South Carolina, if not more so. Biden lamented that the party’s current calendar undervalued voters of color, working-class and union voters, and voters from a mix of urban, suburban and rural areas. 

South Carolina’s Black population is bigger, as a percentage, than Nevada’s, but the Hispanic and Asian American populations in Nevada are much bigger than South Carolina’s, and Nevada, unlike South Carolina, is majority-minority. Nevada’s workforce also routinely ranks as among the most working-class and unionized in the country.

But South Carolina’s primary is particularly significant to Biden. It was the first state he won during the 2020 primaries — and ever, in his three presidential runs. He finished a distant fourth in Iowa and an even-worse fifth in New Hampshire. Biden gained some momentum in Nevada, finishing second, but Sen. Bernie Sanders (D-VT)’s win in the Silver State, on the strength of his support from Latino voters, cast doubt on Biden’s ability to defeat the seemingly surging Sanders. 

Biden’s campaign was saved in the Palmetto State, where he earned a critical endorsement from Rep. Jim Clyburn (D-SC) and proved his popularity with Black voters. He gained a lead he never relinquished, sweeping most of the Super Tuesday states and locking up the nomination.

Biden has not yet officially declared for 2024, but he’s expected to run for re-election. Any Democratic challenger would have to defy history to topple him, but by moving South Carolina to the front, Biden would make the path of anyone who dared to challenge him even more implausible.

Beyond 2024, Biden also asked the RBC to review the calendar every four years and update it to reflect the party’s current values, so that the new schedule is not as entrenched as its predecessor.

Nevada Democratic Chair Judith Whitmer told The Nevada Independent in a statement that the RBC should make Nevada first regardless.

“Following our party’s historic triumph in November, we’ve proven once again that the path to the White House should start in Nevada,” Whitmer said. “Our historic reversal of midterm trends in this all-important election reaffirms what the DNC already knows: It’s time to put real representation and diversity at the heart of our presidential primary process by making Nevada first in the nation.”

But the RBC, as expected, put the wishes of their party’s president above the wishes of Nevada Democrats.

This story was updated at 1:55 p.m. on 12/2/22 to reflect votes of the RBC.


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