On the trail: Meet veteran political adviser helping New Hampshire Democrats save presidential primary


For the Valley News

Published: 01-18-2023 10:33 AM

New Hampshire Democrats face major challenges as they try to save the state’s cherished first-in-the-nation presidential primary status in their national party’s nominating calendar. Now, they’re getting an assist from a veteran strategist with strong ties to the Granite State.

“The most important thing that we can do is educate people about New Hampshire and tell people New Hampshire’s story,” Lis Smith tells the Concord Monitor.

Smith is a longtime party operative and consultant with scores of campaign experience, including running rapid response for President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election to serving as the top adviser on Pete Buttigieg’s longshot-to-leading-contender bid for the 2020 Democratic nomination. She was hired late last year by the New Hampshire Democratic Party as an adviser on their first-in-the-nation strategy to protect the primary.

“There’s a perception out there that New Hampshire is clinging to the primary out of a sense of entitlement, when really New Hampshire is pushing to keep its first-in-the-nation status because it’s really, really, important for the American political process,” Smith said.

Highlighting New Hampshire’s emphasis on retail politics — from house parties to town halls to appearances at town dumps and transfer stations — Smith noted that “at a time when we see more and more politicians trying to bypass voters and the media and just buy their way into political office, a place like New Hampshire takes on even more importance than it has in the past, because those sort of strategies will not work here.

“In New Hampshire, voters expect you to show up and answer their questions. You’re expected to take questions from the local media. You’re expected to know the ins and outs of every issue,” she added.

New Hampshire for a century has held the first primary in the race for the White House, and for the past half-century it’s held the second contest in both major political party’s presidential nominating calendars, following the Iowa caucuses.

But for years, plenty of Democrats have knocked Iowa and New Hampshire as unrepresentative of the party as a whole for being largely white with few major urban areas. Nevada and South Carolina, which in recent cycles have voted third and fourth in the calendar, are much more diverse than either Iowa or New Hampshire.

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While Republicans are making no changes to the top of the 2024 nominating calendar, the Democratic National Committee is shaking things up.

The DNC’S proposal, which cleared a key first hurdle when it was overwhelmingly approved last month by the party’s Rules and Bylaws Committee, moves South Carolina to the leadoff position in the Democrats’ primary calendar, on Feb. 3, 2024, with New Hampshire and Nevada holding primaries three days later, followed by Georgia and Michigan. The plan, proposed by President Joe Biden, is expected to be approved by the full DNC membership when they gather at their winter meeting in early February.

The DNC is also insisting that New Hampshire, in order to keep its early voting slot in the new calendar, needs to scrap a nearly five-decades-old state law that protects its first-in-the-nation primary status and must expand legislation to expand access to early voting. With Republicans in control of the governor’s office and both houses of the state legislature, that’s a non-starter in New Hampshire.

Longtime state Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley, in a letter last week to the DNC, called their requirements “unrealistic and unattainable, as the New Hampshire Democratic Party cannot dictate to the Republican governor and state legislative leaders what to do, and because it does not have the power to change the primary date unilaterally.”

And Buckley argued that the DNC’s move would give political ammunition to Republicans in the key northeastern battleground state, adding it would be “an unfortunate, reckless and self-inflicted blow” that would damage Democrats’ prospects in 2024.

Thanks in part to Smith’s efforts, the intra-party battle over the nominating calendar, and New Hampshire’s case, have been grabbing plenty of attention in the national political press. But changing the minds of President Biden and the DNC is a much taller task.

“New Hampshire is a place that makes American politics better and American politicians better, and that’s a key point we’re trying to get across,” Smith spotlighted. “If we want to make politics the place where the best and brightest succeed, not just the most famous and the people with the biggest war chests, we need a small, discerning state like New Hampshire at the top of the primary process.”

For Smith, the effort to save the primary is a labor of love.

Her grandfather, David Schaffer, was the Franconia, N.H., town moderator for 32 years, the longest tenure in the history of the small town in the White Mountains.

“I grew up spending summers in Franconia and going into his study and seeing photos of him with political luminaries like Teddy Kennedy and, from an early age, I got a sense of how seriously the people of New Hampshire take their civics through the person of my grandfather,” Smith noted. “He took his role as town moderator very seriously, but also his role as someone who was helping to choose the next president of the United States.”

Years later, Smith served as president of the Young Democrats at Dartmouth College. Among her duties was introducing presidential candidates on campus.

“I knocked on my first door ever in the Upper Valley when I was an intern for the New Hampshire Democratic Party in 2002,” she added.

And Smith highlighted that “like a lot of people in American politics, New Hampshire is where I cut my teeth, and it’s a place that made me understand how seriously people took politics.”