New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley and Republican Chair Chris Ager teamed up at Dartmouth last week to defend the first-in-the nation presidential primary, which has been threatened on the Democratic side this cycle by the Democratic National Committee’s attempt to move South Carolina into the lead position.
At a Rocky Talk forum at the Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy on Nov. 1, both Buckley and Ager were clear that neither national party committee can force New Hampshire to violate the state law requiring that the primary be a week before any other similar contest, not even by decertifying New Hampshire delegates to the national convention.
“As Jeanne Shaheen said, the DNC didn’t give us the primary, they can’t take it away,” Buckley said, referring to New Hampshire’s senior U.S. senator. “There is literally nothing the DNC can do that is going to impact the decision by the party, and vice versa if the RNC ever wanted to punish the Republicans.”
New Hampshire Republicans and Democrats each send 22 delegates to their respective national presidential nominating convention. There are about 4,600 delegates to the Democratic convention and some 2,900 delegates at the GOP convention. “Those 22 delegates aren’t going to make a difference,” Buckley said.
But the work of vetting the broadest possible field of candidates provided by New Hampshire is invaluable, both agreed.
Speaking for state Republicans, Ager said, “I know with our friends on the Democratic side, this is one thing that we agree on. A lot of other things, yes, we might have a few differences here and there, maybe on everything else. But on this, we are united. The first-in-the nation primary is good for New Hampshire and it’s good for the country, and we intend to keep it that way.”
Democratic party officials last year proposed making South Carolina the first primary state, followed by Nevada and New Hampshire on the same day, then Georgia, and then Michigan.
The plan is intended to engage more working-class voters, as well as people of color, who formed the base of Biden’s support in 2020.
“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 wrote last year.
The Dartmouth event was moderated by government professor Russell Muirhead, the Robert Clements Professor of Democracy and Politics and a Democratic state representative who serves on the New Hampshire House Election Law committee.
Muirhead called it unprecedented to have both chairs—Buckley, who has headed the state Democratic party for 16 years, and Ager, who became GOP chair in January after serving as a Republican National Committeeman and state GOP committee member for more than a decade—side by side at a public event.
“I don’t think there’s that many places in the country where you’ll see the head of the Republican Party and the head of the Democratic Party getting together in a public forum to talk about elections and the primary,” Muirhead said. “I think that’s an extraordinary reflection on the civic culture here in New Hampshire.”
And Muirhead applauded Buckley and Ager’s commitment to sharing the history and the impact of the primary with Dartmouth students, many voting for the first time in the 2024 primary, and many from other states who might not understand why New Hampshire is so invested in its primary.
But first, Muirhead asked, what will it mean for President Biden not to appear on the Democratic primary ballot? Biden, who proposed the DNC rules change moving South Carolina to the front of the primary calendar, did not file to run in New Hampshire. Last cycle Biden finished fifth in New Hampshire, and many were counting him out until South Carolina revived his campaign.
“As to the 2024 presidential primary,” Buckley said. “I think it’s going to be exciting on both sides. On the Republican side, obviously the big question is will anyone get anywhere near Donald Trump? On the Democratic side, the question is how well will the write-in do for Joe Biden? So each side is going to have some drama that night, and that’s how we like the primary.”
To the question of why should New Hampshire be first, Ager said the New Hampshire primary helps filter the candidates because, to do well in the state, candidates have to meet people and connect with voters who take the role of vetting all comers seriously.
“In other states, if you have a lot of money or you’re a celebrity, you’ll rise right to the top,” Ager said. “Here, you have to answer the difficult questions. We even have high school students who ask better questions than most of the national media. And it’s what people care about, not what media institutions or party institutions or the big wealthy donors care about.”
In response to the question of why not let South Carolina go first because history has shown that South Carolina has a better track record in terms of picking the nominee, Buckley replied that New Hampshire is not about picking the winner, it’s about testing the character of the candidates.
“We don’t pick the presidents, we don’t have that influence,” Buckley said. “What we do is vet them for you. We say, here are your choices, here are people that could be president. Here are people who should never be near the White House. We’re compelling candidates to reveal something about who they really are, not just for the benefit of New Hampshire voters, but for the benefit of the whole country.”
Both chairs spoke about their own experience with finding a candidate who they felt connected with people politically and personally—who inspired them. For Buckley it was working house parties as a 15-year-old for former Georgia governor Jimmy Carter in 1976, and for Ager it was discovering former California governor Ronald Reagan in 1980. Buckley pointed to both men as prime examples of people who were able to make personal connections that carried over into their politics.
Ager, highlighting the collegial relationship that President Reagan and Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill had even as they were fierce political adversaries, said that for him, good politics is about making connections on a human level.
Gesturing to Buckley, seated beside him on the stage, Ager said, “He’s an admirable adversary. I don’t say enemy. We’re opponents. I think we all want what’s best for the state. Yes, we’re going to throw some punches, but if we can just stay focused on what we really believe, the end game is, I want to get Republicans elected because I think we help the people in the state improve their lives. And I would expect on the other side that they have the same motivation.”
Speaking to the students in the room, Muirhead returned to Ager’s point to close the discussion.
“I hope everybody noticed the difference between enemies and opponents,” Muirhead said. “You need an opposition in a democracy. There are things to disagree about. It’s not easy to get things right. You’ve got to have a debate and an argument and a choice. And that doesn’t mean that we’re enemies. And to be both opponents and friends, opponents and fellow citizens committed to the common good, as you demonstrated today, I have to say, was an extraordinary lesson for all of us.”