LACONIA, New Hampshire — Steve Shurtleff was at Joe Biden’s side in 2019 when he filed papers in the New Hampshire State House to run for president.
He repeatedly trekked across the state with Biden to court primary voters. And when Biden ultimately won the presidency, it was Shurtleff, then the Democratic state House speaker, who proudly sealed the envelope that carried New Hampshire’s four electoral votes — including his own name — to the U.S. Senate.
But on the eve of a new election season, Shurtleff, like a majority of Democrats across the country, feels that one term is enough.
“In my heart of hearts, no,” Shurtleff said when asked if he wants Biden to run again. “I think a lot of people just don’t want to say it.”
Democrats across New Hampshire are upset with the Democratic president for trying to end the state’s status as home to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary. But their concerns about Biden run much deeper, in line with a majority of Democratic voters nationwide, who question the 80-year-old president’s plans to soon launch his reelection campaign.
Just 37 percent of Democrats nationwide want the president to seek a second term, according to a poll released last month by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. That was down from 52 percent in the weeks before last year’s midterm elections.
Many worry about Biden’s age. Others, like Shurtleff, are upset about the administration’s messy withdrawal from Afghanistan. And the party’s progressive wing has never been enthusiastic about Biden, who is perceived as a moderate, despite his lengthy list of achievements.
The White House cast Biden’s perceived weakness within his own party as an exaggerated narrative that he has repeatedly proven wrong.
“We’re aware pundits’ attitude toward President Biden is unchanged from before he earned the nomination faster than anyone since 2004, won the most votes in American history, built the strongest legislative record in generations and led the best midterm outcome for a new Democratic president in 60 years,” Biden spokesman Andrew Bates said. “Based on comparing the accuracy of our predictions versus theirs, we are happy for this dynamic to continue.”
Still, there’s a risk of a disconnect between rank-and-file Democrats and the party’s establishment. While voters are signaling unease about the prospect of another Biden campaign, Democratic governors, senators and congressional representatives are virtually unanimous in supporting Biden’s reelection.
One exception may be New Hampshire, a small swing state whose electoral votes could be critical in a tight general election. The state has challenged Biden before.
Voters here served Biden an embarrassing fifth-place finish in the 2020 Democratic primary. New Hampshire polls were still open when he decamped to South Carolina, where his presidential ambitions were revived by a decisive win. That state is now Biden’s pick to lead the 2024 presidential primary calendar.
Interviews with angry New Hampshire Democrats across state government and local Democratic committees suggest there is some appetite for a serious primary challenger in 2024. But top-tier prospects don’t seem to be interested.
So far, only Democratic activist and author Marianne Williamson has entered the 2024 primary field. Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the son of the late New York senator and known for railing against vaccines, met with New Hampshire voters on Friday. He’s also leaning toward a bid.
But the likes of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, Biden’s fiercest primary challenger in 2020, has vowed to back the president in 2024. So has Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker, whose appearance at last year’s New Hampshire’s Democratic convention still comes up in conversation. California Rep. Ro Khanna, a progressive favorite, has also said he would not challenge Biden, although he has been a vocal advocate for New Hampshire’s place atop the primary calendar.
In an interview, Khanna said it was “political malpractice” for the Democratic National Committee, under Biden’s direction, to threaten New Hampshire’s status.
“New Hampshire is a state where retail politics still matter and where voters have an independence that can’t be controlled by the party establishment in D.C.,” Khanna said. The primary shakeup “could cost us four electoral votes and hurt our chances to win in the 2024 election.”
Meanwhile, Biden’s allies privately believe the primary dispute will be long forgotten by the time voters cast ballots in November 2024, especially with former President Donald Trump or one of his Republican acolytes on the ballot.
Biden supporters also note that some of the nation’s most popular two-term presidents confronted opposition from within their own parties ahead of their reelection.
President Ronald Reagan faced grumbling from dissatisfied Republicans leading up to the 1984 contest, which turned out to be the most lopsided general election victory in U.S. history. Democrats openly encouraged a primary challenge against President Bill Clinton after the disastrous 1994 midterms. He went on to a commanding reelection win in 1996. And President Barack Obama’s campaign worried about losing support from his political base — especially Black voters — before he cruised to victory in 2012.
“We had a lot of work to do, but the fundamentals were there,” said Stephanie Cutter, who helped managed Obama’s 2012 reelection.
Obama’s outlook changed as his team worked to remind voters what they liked best about him compared to a Republican opponent.
“Elections are about two people,” Cutter said. “Once Republicans start hitting the campaign trail and that craziness begins, the contrast between that crazy train and Joe Biden’s steady leadership and even hand fixing some of the nation’s biggest problems become clear as day.”
Biden has presided over significant accomplishments that could boost a reelection campaign.
He signed into law a sweeping pandemic relief bill, a massive infrastructure package, the first new federal gun safety law in decades and a comprehensive health and environmental plan that allowed Medicare to lower prescription drug prices and dedicated billions of dollars to combating climate change. Job growth and unemployment have also improved during his administration.
But he is grappling with acute challenges related to inflation, illegal immigration, crime and foreign affairs.
North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, attributed Biden’s political challenges to Democratic leaders who haven’t done enough to promote his accomplishments.
“The real disconnect right now is communication,” Cooper said in an interview. “President Biden has accomplished in two years what many presidents would only hope to do in eight. His success has meant real wins for working families. People are going to begin to see real improvement in their lives. It’s our job to make sure that they know it was President Biden who got it done.”
“Democrats came together once before in 2020 to ask him to do a job, and he accomplished it — he beat President Trump,” Cooper added. “And now he’s gonna do it again.”
Despite such optimism, Democrats across New Hampshire believe it will be difficult for Biden to match his 2020 victory of 7 percentage points in the state in 2024. Former Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat, declined to say whether he wanted Biden to seek reelection when asked directly.
Biden’s push to change the primary calendar, Lynch said, has created such anti-Biden furor that it puts New Hampshire’s four electoral votes at risk in the 2024 general election. He was quick to note that four electoral votes would have tipped the 2000 presidential election in Al Gore’s favor.
“It could cost Democrats the presidency,” Lynch said. “Republicans won’t let voters forget. They’ll hammer the Democrats on this.”
Indeed, New Hampshire’s current governor, Republican Chris Sununu, called the primary calendar shift “a horrible miscalculation” for Biden that exposes him to a legitimate primary challenge.
“He’s made it harder to win in November ’24 — if he’s the nominee,” Sununu said in an interview. “But because of what he did here, he very well may not be the nominee.”
The Democratic concerns were easy to see inside the monthly meeting of Laconia Democrats on the shores of Lake Winnipesaukee late last week, where just a half-dozen people gathered to discuss party business. Most of the participants, especially older ones, said they favored Biden’s reelection, even if they weren’t passionate about it.
Lois Kessin, a 73-year-old Laconia resident, has been volunteering for Biden in New Hampshire since Obama first tapped him as his running mate. She has a picture of herself and Biden hanging in her hallway.
“I am very happy with Joe Biden,” she said, acknowledging that some Democrats are worried about his age — a concern she said was offensive. “Perhaps there’s somebody as brilliant as he and as compassionate and as knowledgeable out there. But until that person shows up, I’m happy with Joe Biden.”
The Laconia committee chairman, 43-year-old Eric Hoffman, was less enthusiastic.
“The party kind of lined up because he was the nominee, but he obviously wasn’t our first four choices,” Hoffman said, referring to Biden’s finish in the 2020 primary. “People would prefer to see a change.”
But like many Democrats, he said he would vote for Biden in the 2024 general election to ensure Republicans don’t retake the White House.
Just don’t expect him to be excited about it.
“I wasn’t a big fan of his, but I’ve been pretty impressed with his abilities and the things he’s gotten accomplished,” Hoffman said. “So, it’s not the worst thing in the world.”
Story by Steve Peoples.