Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak on Friday signed a law that would make Nevada the first state to vote in the 2024 presidential primary contests, bumping Iowa and New Hampshire from their leadoff spots.
Signing the law is a gamble.
It's likely to set off maneuvering by other states, especially Iowa and New Hampshire, to move up their contests. The national political parties would need to agree to changes in the calendar, or state parties could risk losing their delegates at presidential nominating conventions.
The Democratic National Committee has not yet signaled whether it would support the calendar shakeup and isn't expected to start writing rules for its nominating process until next year. Republicans in four early presidential nominating states this week all jointly opposed the move, saying they're committed to preserving the historic schedule.
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Democrats in Nevada, including former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, launched the push this year to boost their state after the 2020 primary contest left members of the party questioning the process. They noted Iowa's problem-plagued caucuses and the fact that the two traditional early states are overwhelmingly white, unlike Nevada.
Before he went on to win his party's nomination, President Joe Biden performed poorly in Iowa's caucuses and New Hampshire's primary. In Nevada, with a much more racially diverse population that mirrors the U.S. as a whole, he finished second.
That gave Biden momentum heading into South Carolina's primary, which then catapulted him to a string of Super Tuesday victories.
The new law changes Nevada’s contest from a party-run, in-person caucus meeting to a government-run primary election. Democrats nationally started shifting away from caucuses to primaries before 2020, citing the difficulty of attending an in-person meeting and the fiddly math involved to determine who wins the most delegates.
The law will require the presidential primary to be held on the first Tuesday in February in a presidential election year.
“Nevada represents a diverse constituency that presidential candidates need to talk to. It is not just for us. It is for candidates to vet their issues and communicate with the kind of communities that they’re going to be asking to vote for them in the national presidential election,” Jason Frierson, the Nevada speaker of the House who pushed the change, said Friday at a bill signing ceremony in Las Vegas.
Frierson said he's confident Nevada can make its case and persuade both national parties to let it go first. He said those conversations have already started and will continue, but he did not offer more details.
Iowa and New Hampshire have signaled they're willing to fight to protect their status. New Hampshire has a state law requiring its presidential primary to be held at least seven days ahead of any other similar contest. The law also gives the New Hampshire secretary of state the exclusive power to set the primary date.
“Harry Reid’s been doing this for over half a century now, and we’re just waiting for him to run out of steam,” said New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, a Democrat who's served as the state's top election official since 1976.
Given that two of the last four New Hampshire primaries have been in January, Nevada shouldn’t count on being first with a February date, he said.
“It could be the seventh,” Gardner said Friday.
Racially diverse South Carolina could make a bid to move up as well. The Southern state is seen as a bellwether for candidates’ abilities to appeal to Black voters, who play a key role in the Democratic electorate. The state has the benefit of one of its own, Jaime Harrison, as the new chair of the Democratic National Committee.
“We are going to continue to let the process play out, as it does every four years, and look forward to hearing the insight and recommendations from all interested parties on the 2020 reforms, and on the 2024 calendar at the appropriate time in the process," Harrison said in a statement Friday.
Biden has a huge influence on the process as head of the party, but it’s not clear where he stands on shaking up the calendar. White House press secretary Jen Psaki declined this week to comment on the order of presidential primary contests.
House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a mentor of Harrison's who is also a close ally of Biden's, told The Associated Press in an interview this month that there is “clear and convincing evidence that having Iowa and New Hampshire create candidate momentum is not a good thing.”
“Those candidates on both sides — Democrats and Republicans — have not fared well when they get into the general elections," Clyburn said.
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Nevada's maneuvers to be first in the nation were futile.
“The New Hampshire presidential primary will remain first in the nation," the Republican governor declared. "What happens in Nevada stays in Nevada.”
Associated Press writers Darlene Superville in Washington, Holly Ramer in Concord, N.H., and Meg Kinnard in Columbia, S.C., contributed to this report.