First-in-the-nation primary loses its top champion — but the calendar probably isn’t changing

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Bill Gardner is leaving, but New Hampshire isn't going to be any less militant about protecting its legendary perch in presidential politics.

Gardner has for several decades served as the chief defender of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation role at the top of the presidential primary calendar. Gardner, a Democrat, announced on Monday that he would soon be stepping down as the state’s secretary of state, a role he has held since 1976.

He has sometimes gone to extreme lengths to defend the small northeastern state’s role as presidential kingmaker — something Gardner has said he viewed as one of his main responsibilities, with state law giving the secretary of state authority to set the primary date and thwart other states’ efforts to jump the line.

During a 2012 jailbreak by a handful of states looking to shift their contests forward during the contested Republican primary, Gardner threatened to schedule New Hampshire’s contest in December 2011 if that’s what it took to preserve New Hampshire’s spot as the first primary state. (POLITICO’s headline at the time: “N.H.'s Gardner to Nevada: Drop dead.”)

In a meandering retirement press conference on Monday — where he touched on everything from a recent visit from a North Carolina state legislative leader to pulling the state’s original copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights out of the walls of the state House — Gardner said his retirement doesn’t mean New Hampshire will be any less aggressive about defending its spot.

“No, it’s not a bad day” for the state’s status, he told reporters. “Our primary is stronger every four years, because every time we have one it makes it stronger.”

“There is no reason to think that this primary is in any more difficult position than it has been,” he continued. “There will be challenges. They’ll find new ways to attempt [it], but it should be okay.”

Some Democrats have been agitating to shake up the primary calendar ahead of the 2024 election, arguing that the predominantly white New Hampshire and Iowa — which holds its caucuses before the Granite State’s primaries — are unrepresentative of both the Democratic electorate and the country as a whole.

The late Sen. Harry Reid long tried to maneuver Nevada to the front of the line, which Gardner noted in his farewell press conference. Nevada’s Democratic Gov. Steve Sisolak signed a law in 2021 that switches the state from a party-run caucus system to a state-run presidential primary that will be held on the “first Tuesday in February,” a bid to dethrone New Hampshire that Gardner brushed aside at the time.

“Harry Reid’s been doing this for over half a century now, and we’re just waiting for him to run out of steam,” Gardner said in June, noting the state has regularly held January primaries.

And some of the push to shake up Democrats’ primary calendar has already lost momentum, with some state party chairs recently predicting to POLITICO that the party will punt the contentious question down the road.

Prominent New Hampshire politicos from both parties highlighted Gardner’s bulldog defense of the state’s primary in farewell statements — Gardner “fiercely protect[ing]” its status was the first thing GOP Gov. Chris Sununu noted in his statement — and many said they were confident that his retirement wouldn’t imperil the state’s first-in-the-nation role.

Gardner is hardly the only New Hampshire figure invested in the first primary — and politicians of both parties are expected to defend it just as furiously as he has.

“I think that the four early states working together with our Republican counterparts and elected officials and RNC and DNC members and other interested parties, I think we have a strong case to be made, and I think ultimately successful,” said Ray Buckley, chair of the New Hampshire Democratic Party. “Certainly, Bill Gardner has played a very prominent public role in the last 44 years defending New Hampshire’s status, but there was an enormous amount of people behind the scenes that will still be around.”

Meanwhile, national Republicans have shown much less of an appetite to change the calendar than there’s been on the Democratic side, with potential 2024 hopefuls already flocking to both Iowa and New Hampshire.

Fergus Cullen, a former chair of the New Hampshire Republican Party, said “the laws which Bill helped shepherd through over the decades give us a certain amount of protection.”

“Certainly, the rest of state government and his successors will be well-versed in the different levers and tools that are available to them,” Cullen said.

Still, Cullen acknowledged that forces outside of any secretary of state’s control could undermine New Hampshire’s status. “Ultimately, it is the candidates who decide whether New Hampshire has a first-in-the-nation primary and whether it is meaningful,” he said. “If they keep showing up, we’ll have one. And when they stop — because they don’t think it’s in their strategic interests or they don’t have a level playing field — that’s how it ends.”

Gardner’s retirement means that Republicans will likely now control the office in the state. He said on Monday that he would be succeeded by David Scanlan, a former Republican state legislator who has been deputy secretary of state since 2002.

Gardner has also clashed with Democrats in the state and nationally. The conservative Democrat joined a commission formed by then-President Donald Trump in 2017 that was intended to chase voter fraud, which angered Democrats in the state and helped fuel an intraparty challenge that almost unseated Gardner in 2018. He seemed to defend his decision to sit on that commission — and reiterated his criticism of Washington Democrats’ sweeping voting rights proposals — during his farewell press conference.

The entire membership of the state legislature elects a secretary of state every other year. Republicans backed Gardner during his contested reelection bid in 2018, and he ran unopposed in 2020. The GOP controls both chambers of the state legislature, which are both up later this year.

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