It wasn't exactly the Battle of the Titans
The year was 1996 and New Hampshire and Delaware were squaring off like squabbling kids in a schoolyard.
New Hampshire was mad at Delaware because Delaware scheduled its presidential primary just four days after the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation primary.
Delaware was angry that New Hampshire believed it had every right to schedule a primary whenever it wanted, and then tell Delaware what it could do with its primary, thank you very much.
New Hampshire issued warnings to candidates that they would be sorry if they campaigned in Delaware. But First State lawmakers found a loophole, by passing a bill that would automatically put qualified candidates on the ballot.
In 2020, the first four nominating states — Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina — have a coveted role in the presidential nominating process. With the states being the first to vote, this is where candidates spend their most of their time, money and resources.
First State first?
More than two decades ago, Delaware wanted in on the action. And it worked, for a time.
“We thought since Delaware was the first state, that Delaware should be one of the first to have a primary,” said Basil Battaglia, a former chairman of Delaware’s GOP.
Richard Forsten first heard about the problem at a Christmas party.
It was 1995 and the 30-something lawyer was talking to Battaglia, who needed help. Delaware was holding its first presidential primary Feb. 24, but none of the Republican candidates had filed their paperwork.
The 1996 primary was supposed to be a big deal for the state: Delaware lawmakers decided to hold a primary, instead of a caucus, for the first time. Legislation was passed to move the primary date much earlier in the primary cycle.
This way, Delaware would matter in the primary election.
Or so lawmakers thought.
New Hampshire was miffed. Granite State officials wanted Delaware to wait a full seven days, just like it does today with Iowa.
Tensions resulted in New Hampshire making an ultimatum to candidates: If they campaigned in Delaware then New Hampshire would not support their candidacy.
“This is no longer a primary election we’re talking about in Delaware, but some depraved version of a kangaroo straw poll,” New Hampshire Secretary of State William Gardner told The News Journal around this time. “The politicians of Delaware won’t succeed in robbing the New Hampshire tradition.”
And many of the candidates listened. Battaglia told The News Journal then that the threat was “political blackmail.”
Some New Hampshire lawmakers at the time argued that Delaware’s early primary would hurt the New Hampshire economy.
Weeks before Delaware’s 1996 primary, New Hampshire attempted to seek revenge by introducing a bill into its legislature that would study how to take away some of the money Delaware earns in corporation taxes and fees, The News Journal reported then.
“Take that, Delaware,” New Hampshire state Sen. Thomas Stawasz said when the bill was introduced.
“Delaware has chosen every means possible to attack something that provides a tremendous economic boom to New Hampshire every four years,” he said. “I think it’s only fair that if they want our nickel, we go after theirs on a regular basis.”
‘The most feared and hated man in New Hampshire!’
After hearing all of this, Forsten had an idea: Why couldn’t Delaware pass legislation that automatically puts candidates who qualify on the ballot?
He remembered a high school teacher describing Delaware as a microcosm of the United States. In many ways, he thought, Delaware’s population offered better representation than New Hampshire, an older and whiter state.
In the course of the next few weeks, Forsten — who had the nickname “Shark” — helped draft the bill. Delaware Democrats came on board when they realized then-President Bill Clinton was acceding to New Hampshire’s threat.
In early January 1996, the bipartisan bill became law. Forsten said he still has one of the pens Gov. Tom Carper used to sign the bill.
“To the Shark,” he recalled Carper praising him in a letter. “The most feared and hated man in New Hampshire!”
In February 1996, Forbes magazine publisher and candidate Steve Forbes won the Delaware Republican primary. It helped him win Arizona three days later. Bob Dole, Senate Majority Leader at the time, eventually clinched the nomination.
In 2000, Delaware once again held its primary four days after New Hampshire. It’s unclear what happened to the New Hampshire bill to study Delaware’s incorporation practices.
Ultimately, though, New Hampshire bullied its way through and won the fight. New Hampshire’s 2020 presidential primary is today. Delaware’s is April 28.
Contact Meredith Newman at 302-324-2386 or email@example.com and on Twitter @MereNewman.
Delaware was the First State, in 1787, while
... New Hampshire was the ninth to ratify the U.S. Constitution. However, nine states were needed to put the Constitution into effect, so their vote pushed it over the top.