DNC panel OKs Michigan moving to early-state presidential primary window

Melissa Nann Burke
The Detroit News

Washington — The rulemaking arm of the Democratic National Committee on Friday greenlighted Michigan becoming one of the first five states to cast votes for the 2024 presidential nominating contest — a move that would give the state greater sway in choosing the party's nominee if adopted.

Under the proposed 2024 calendar, Michigan would be the fifth state to hold its presidential primary, following South Carolina, which would replace Iowa as the first state, on Feb. 3; New Hampshire and Nevada on Feb. 6; and Georgia on Feb. 13, DNC officials said Friday.

Colorado Sen. Michael Bennet, New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, former Vice President Joe Biden, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Businessman Andrew Yang, Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Washington state Gov. Jay Inslee and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio pose on stage before the start of the second of two nights of Democratic presidential primary debates at the Fox Theatre in Detroit, Michigan on July 31, 2019.

Michigan's presidential primary would be held Feb. 27 under the new calendar, though that is contingent on approval by the full DNC and the state Legislature taking action to move the state's primary up from the second Tuesday in March. Michigan's primary comes after about a dozen other states on the nominating calendar.

"We feel strongly that this window that reflects our values, paints a vibrant picture of our nation and creates a strong process that will result in the best Democratic nominee," said Minyon Moore of the District of Columbia, co-chair of the DNC's Rules & Bylaws Committee.

The panel voted 31-2 Friday afternoon on rule waivers that would allow the selected states the opportunity to move up on the calendar, effectively booting Iowa from the early window. The two members of the committee who voted against the waivers were Scott Brennan, former chair of the Iowa Democratic Party, and Joanne Dowdell of New Hampshire.

"They recognize the need to change this primary process so that we're hearing from more disparate parts of this country, and not just the sort of monolithic states that we had been hearing from early in the process," Michigan Democratic Party Chair Lavora Barnes told The Detroit News just before the vote.

"We all recognize that need for diversity, that need to have conversations that that are from the Deep South, from the heartland, from everywhere. … And, of course, I'm thrilled that Michigan was part of that."

The state waivers approved Friday require each state to demonstrate to the subcommittee by Jan. 5 that they are taking the steps needed to set their primary dates to align with the new calendar.

In Michigan, Democrats last month won control of both chambers in Lansing and could make the change when they take power in January, if the GOP-controlled Legislature doesn't take action in the lame-duck session this month.

The subcommittee's daylong meeting on Friday followed a letter and state-order recommendation by President Joe Biden late Thursday, in which Biden urged the members to eliminate "restrictive, anti-worker" caucuses as part of Democrats' nominating process; to ensure voters of color have a stronger voice in choosing the nominee; and to welcome diversity "of our party and our nation — economically, geographically, demographically."

Biden also stressed the importance of ensuring that working-class families and union households are represented among the voters of the earliest states to cast ballots.

"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," Biden wrote in the letter, which was read aloud to the committee.

Ray Curry, president of the United Autoworkers Union and a member of the DNC subcommittee, told the panel Friday that moving up Michigan adds the voices of millions of African Americans, Latinos, Arab Americans and union members to the early-state window.

"Maybe most importantly … the state of Michigan has been (part of) the winning coalition for every Democratic president elected over the last century," Curry said. "That's why we're here ― to win elections. And that's why we need Michigan to be part of that."

Moving up in the primary calendar would ensure more early attention and ad spending in the state from candidates and the national media, as well as more attention on issues important to Michigan, such as manufacturing. The early spot also would be an economic boon with thousands of campaign staff, members of the press and others coming to the state for months ahead of the primary.

The committee's recommended calendar next goes to the full DNC for consideration at its February meeting, where U.S. Rep. Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor, has warned the debate could be contentious. "This isn't done. We have to get this done in February," she said.

Dingell said Michigan's pitch to move up its primary was strong — an effort she led with Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and continued work begun 30 years ago by the late-Sen. Carl Levin, D-Detroit.

"In order to win the presidency you must win the heartland. That’s why Michigan is the best place to pick a President," Stabenow said in a statement. "Together, we are one step closer to making sure the presidential selection process truly reflects all of America.”

Stabenow and Dingell had argued that Michigan is more diverse and reflective of the country at large than Iowa and New Hampshire, which have led off the presidential nominating calendar for decades. In addition to racial and cultural diversity, Michigan has both industrial urban centers with manufacturing and more rural agricultural areas than many other states and thousands of union households.

"In 2016 when Donald Trump won, our candidate didn't walk into union hall," Dingell said. "Candidates now are gonna have to go to union halls. Candidates are going to have to talk to farmers. Candidates will go to ice carving, they're going to eat Coney Island hot dogs, they're probably going to do a Mackinac Bridge walk. They're gonna have to do retail politics with a very diverse group of voters."

Some subcommittee members argued Friday against the reshuffled calendar. Brennan of Iowa lamented there would be no states in the Central or Mountain Time Zones in the new early window, with the addition of two "very large, very expensive" states, including Michigan.

"This will surely favor frontrunners and billionaire vanity candidates," Brennan said. "Make no mistake, Republicans in Iowa will seize this opportunity to double down on their caucuses and feed the narrative that Democrats have turned their back on Iowa."

Barnes disagreed with Brennan that Michigan is too big and expensive. "You can buy TV at a reasonable price here in Michigan and get to our voters," she said. "You can get in the car, drive and get to our voters. It is not too big and does not in any way advantage frontrunners."

Brennan also warned that the DNC panel would be creating a situation of "continued uncertainty" that would "drag on" throughout 2023, as state parties and other stakeholders reckon with "conflicting state laws and a GOP calendar that no longer bears any resemblance to ours."

There would indeed be legal wrinkles to iron out. The new calendar would put several states including Michigan, Iowa and Georgia "out of sync" with the rules of the Republican National Committee's nominating calendar, noted Derek T. Muller, a professor and election law expert at the University of Iowa College of Law.

"And it would put pressure on New Hampshire with its law on the books of a first-in-the-nation primary," said Muller, who grew up in Royal Oak.

The situation could set up a sort of “game of chicken” that would force Michigan Republicans to make a decision about whether to do an early primary with the Democrats and risk being penalized by the RNC, which could reduce the number of delegates the state is allocated at the national convention, Muller said.

Even with the RNC rules, Republican leaders in Michigan have signaled support for moving up the state's presidential primary, with the Republican-controlled state Senate this week voting to move the presidential primary from the second Tuesday in March to the second Tuesday in February.

That bill is now before the House, which meets next week for its post-election lame-duck sessions. The bill would need to be updated to reflect the Feb. 27 date on the recommended DNC calendar, but Barnes suggested that's an easy fix.

"I think that this Legislature has the opportunity to move forward the legislation we need in lame duck if they like," Barnes said. "Or we could do it early in the next session if we need to, but I do think that it will be relatively simple procedural process for us to get this done. And I do know that the (Democratic) legislative leaders are behind this."

Michigan Republican Party chairman Ron Weiser has also suggested he would support moving up Michigan's primary, saying this week that "Michigan should have a very significant say in electing the next Republican as the next President of the United States."

The DNC announced in April it would reopen its presidential nominating process after continued complaints about Iowa's bungled 2020 Democratic caucuses. Michigan was one of 16 states and Puerto Rico that pitched the DNC in June on giving them one of the coveted positions.

In recent days, Democrats in the congressional delegation said Michigan was mainly competing against Minnesota to replace Iowa as the Midwest state in the early state lineup.

Ken Martin, chairman of Minnesota's DFL Party and a subcommittee member, congratulated Michigan late Thursday after having pushed back against the state's elevation in recent days. "I wish them luck in conducting their 2024 presidential primaries," Martin said in a statement. "Their success is now all of our success."

But New Hampshire's Democrats were furious at the recommended slate, with Sen. Maggie Hassan saying she strongly opposes Biden's "deeply misguided proposal" and suggesting the state wouldn't relent.

"Make no mistake, New Hampshire's law is clear and our primary will continue to be First in the Nation," she tweeted.

Dowdell told the panel Friday that she agreed with comments about Biden's "bold" vision for the early-state calendar and the importance of diversity but also pointed to New Hampshire's statute.

"We do have a law, and we will not be breaking our law," Dowdell said. "I feel that any lawyer in the room or around the table would agree that is is not in the best interest of this body to even suggest we do that."

In response, other members of Rules and Bylaws Committee noted the national party has the authority to reshuffle the calendar and is not beholden to state statutes.

"What we are facing is a ability for this body to make those decisions regardless of what a state party will send out in a press release or will say a comment. I want to make it very clear," said Luis Heredia, a subcommittee member from Arizona.

"When members of this body continue to advocate that there is a state statute or precedent or (history) or a tradition -- that has no meaning in this body because we get to make those rules to nominate the president of this country."

Moore said the early window cannot be decided "piecemeal," and acknowledged that the logistics of establishing the slate of new early states is something the committee will need to navigate.


Staff Writer Riley Beggin contributed.