WASHINGTON – A week after bitter divisions dominated a national Republican gathering, Democrats holding their own meeting are eager to showcase just how much they agree on.
There will be no party chair fight since Jaime Harrison isn’t up for reelection until 2025. There is no candidate jostling for a White House bid since President Joe Biden is expected to seek a second term. And there is no national reckoning after a surprisingly strong midterm showing.
The only real point of contention for the Democratic National Committee’s winter meeting in Philadelphia this weekend is a proposed overhaul of the 2024 presidential primary calendar, which has angered top party leaders in New Hampshire. But even that is largely moot since Biden isn’t expected to face a major challenge for the nomination.
The DNC on Saturday is expected to approve a new lineup for the party's presidential primaries, deferring to Biden, who has championed South Carolina's primary opening voting on Feb. 3. New Hampshire and Nevada would jointly follow three days later, on Feb. 6, with Georgia coming next on Feb. 13 and Michigan two weeks after that.
The president has argued that replacing the party's leadoff caucuses in Iowa, a majority white state, with a presidential primary in South Carolina, where nearly 27% of the population is Black, would empower the voters of color whom Democrats rely on but have taken for granted.
The party is solidly behind Biden seeking a second term despite his being the oldest president in U.S. history and revelations that he may have mishandled official documents. Unity remains its mantra after Republicans took 15 ballots last month just to elect a House speaker, with GOP members nearly coming to blows on the House floor.
“We’re fending off a Republican House that’s crazy and actually defending our gains from the first years. So it just doesn’t make sense to be saber-rattling right now about a future race when we’re all just sort of in the fight together," said Adam Green, co-founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee, which backed Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, rather than Biden, in Democrats' 2020 presidential primary.
Warren, like Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and other major 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, say they expect Biden to run again and will support him when he makes a bid official.
Sanders is instead urging the DNC to ban accepting funding from super PACs and other outside political groups during future Democratic primaries. That's an idea some Democratic elders have opposed, arguing that Republican candidates will continue to accept such financial support and that their party shouldn't "unilaterally disarm."
Still, most top progressive organizations and grassroots activist groups have also shied away from suggesting Biden could face a major primary challenge. President Jimmy Carter's loss to Republican Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election followed a strong primary challenge from Sen. Edward M. Kennedy.
Harrison, who rose to national prominence with an unsuccessful 2020 bid against South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham, will remain chair until after next year's presidential race. That's in stark contrast to Ronna McDaniel, who won another term as head of the Republican National Committee during a contentious meeting last week in California. Members openly questioned the GOP's midterm performance and former President Donald Trump's continued hold on the party.
Harrison teared up during a December party rules committee meeting when Democrats' new primary calendar was first approved and predicts he may get emotional again this weekend. He recalled going to vote with his grandfather before his death in 2004 and how the U.S. Constitution once counted his Black ancestors in South Carolina as three-fifths of a person.
“They didn’t always think I was a whole man in this state," Harrison remembered his grandfather saying, before urging him, “Never let anyone tell you that you don’t matter.”
“That this president would step into the tradition of the Democratic Party — go into Iowa, go into New Hampshire to say, you know what, it is now time that we elevate the voices of people like my grandfather, like my grandmother, to allow them to get a say in determining who should be president of the United States,” Harrison added. “For me, I was emotional because of that.”
But the new lineup has its detractors. New Hampshire, already a general election battleground state, has a law that mandates holding the nation's first presidential primary, which Iowa only circumvented with its caucus. Its Democrats have joined with top state Republicans in vowing to hold the nation's first presidential primary next year regardless of the DNC calendar.
That raises the possibility that, if Biden were to bypass a rogue New Hampshire primary, he could lose the state to a challenger who campaigns there unopposed.
Such a scenario may trigger “potential embarrassment" for Biden that creates “an opening for an insurgent candidate — serious or not — who can garner media attention and capitalize on Granite Staters' anger about being passed over,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chair Ray Buckley wrote to the DNC rules committee.
DNC rules committee member Joanne Dowdell of New Hampshire seized on the same theme, noting, "This is not how any of us would like to kick off a reelection campaign."
That's unlikely to keep the DNC from approving the new primary calendar. But the proposal has drawn some opposition beyond New Hampshire.
Matt Hughes, a DNC member who is second vice chair of the North Carolina Democratic Party, was the first signature on a letter released Thursday to DNC members from local officials in his state, as well as Nevada, Michigan and Georgia.
It urged the party to choose the first primary state from a competitive state like those four — arguing that doing so would allow Democrats to concentrate campaign resources on areas that are more competitive in the general election than deeply Republican South Carolina.
Hughes said such calls shouldn't be seen as defying Biden. Instead, he said, the party having an incumbent president who won't face primary opposition is the perfect time to make changes that shape future cycles.
“What we should be thinking about is absolutely the long-term impact. In 2024, it makes a lot of sense. This is relatively low impact," Hughes said. "This is the perfect opportunity to talk about the lineup of states without regard to possible candidates in the field, who benefits and who losses.”