In an oddball year for politics, the New Hampshire governor’s race could prove to be the most oddball contest in the state.
On the Republican side, the top polling candidates include a member of a well-known family and the less well-known but better funded mayor of Manchester. On the Democratic side, the race may be all about a post-Bernie zeitgeist, name recognition and the fact that, for many voters, none of the candidates are all that well-known.
And after next week’s primary (Sept. 13), the race will really get strange as the forces that may impact other down-ticket races — namely, the presidential battle between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump — might not matter to the gubernatorial election in the same way it does to, say, the US Senate race.
The fact that the presidential and Senate races are overshadowing just about everything else is also making predictions difficult.
“Any other year, this would be the marquee match-up. You got the open seat, multiple sort of well-qualified [candidates] … in both parties, but it just feels like this particular race, as interesting as it is, has been somewhat ignored because of the presidential race [and] the Kelly Ayotte reelection bid,” SNHU civic scholar Dean Spiliotes said.
What’s in a name?
One of the factors that makes this primary so unpredictable is that a large field of candidates is jockeying for the governorship in the wake of Gov. Maggie Hassan’s decision to vacate the office and run for U.S. Senate. But most of those candidates are not well-known by voters.
According to an Aug. 30 poll by the University of New Hampshire, Democrats are particularly struggling to get recognized. The three most serious contenders are Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern, former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand and former securities chief Mark Connolly. When asked if likely voters in the general election viewed the candidates favorably, neutrally or unfavorably, 73 percent said they didn’t know enough about Marchand and Connolly to say. And 70 percent said they didn’t know enough about Van Ostern.
Two other Democrats on the ballot, Ian Freeman of Keene and Derek Dextraze of Dover, were even less known, with 82 percent to 87 percent of respondents respectively saying they didn’t know enough about them.
Meanwhile, on the Republican side, things aren’t much better for state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, state Rep. Frank Edelblut and Jonathan Lavoie of Hollis. Executive Councilor Chris Sununu enjoys the most recognition, unknown by only a third of likely voters. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas is known to just over half of likely voters.
But Spiliotes said one doesn’t need a poll to tell them that.
“Gatsas and Sununu are way better known than any of the candidates on either side,” Spiliotes said.
Gatsas’ name recognition can be attributed to his being a four-term mayor of the state’s largest city, but Sununu’s recognition is floated in large part by his family’s political dynasty. His father, John H. Sununu, was governor through most of the 1980s before becoming White House Chief of Staff under George H.W. Bush. His brother, John E. Sununu, was a U.S. senator from 2003 to 2009.
Dems on top?
UNH political science professor Dante Scala said as long as Donald Trump continues to trail Clinton in state polls, that gives all Democrats — who have controlled New Hampshire’s executive branch since 2005 — an advantage down ticket.
But UNH pollster Andy Smith is less confident that Democrats have it in the bag, since the demographics of those who to actually show up to vote in a general election tend to look a lot more like Trump supporters and Clinton’s relative unpopularity might hurt Democratic turnout.
Spiliotes believes in the powerful forces of the presidential race, but concedes those forces may not have as much sway in the gubernatorial race.
“If there was any race where maybe you get a little bit of a different outcome, that might be it,” Spiliotes said. “But my experience has been if it’s a big win for the top of the ticket, that really hurts the other party all the way down the line.”
This election year has been anything but predictable so far, and Smith said those same strange winds could tip the scales in this matchup. Besides name recognition, factors like a changing state Democratic party make this race even more unpredictable, but there are some clues that may help.
If the UNH poll is any indication, Chris Sununu is coming out on top of the GOP primary in more ways than one. He has the highest favorability with 34 percent, followed closely by Gatsas with his 27 percent. Among Democrats, there’s no clear leader in this regard. Van Ostern has edged just barely to the top of the field with 15 percent favorability while Marchand is at 14 percent and Connolly has 13 percent.
But it’s the relative obscurity of the Democrats that’s keeping these figures low. Smith said a lot of people tend to vote their party in the general election so the apparent disparity between Republican and Democrat favorability can’t be used to suggest a Republican advantage after the primary.
Sununu also came out on top between both parties when likely voters were asked who they would vote for in the primary. He won 23 percent, Gatsas came in second with 14 percent, followed by Van Ostern at 10 percent and Marchand and Forrester both at 5 percent.
This means a lot of voters, especially Democrats, are still undecided. And Smith said primary poll numbers are notoriously unreliable for this reason. Voters tend to make their decision in the final days before a primary.
The candidates will need to use the Sept. 6 WMUR debates (available to review at wmur.com) to stand out from their opponents and increase favorability, especially since the candidates have a great deal in common.
“It will be the first time many people in the state will see these candidates,” Smith said.
Viewers will likely be checking for less tangible cues like charm, strength, confidence, humor and a cool head.
Instead of looking at poll numbers, Smith recommends taking a look at how well the candidates’ campaigns are structured and how much they’re doing with their election ground game — things like knocking on doors, making phone calls, shaking hands, raising money and getting seen.
While a lot of the information about this tends to be fairly anecdotal, fundraising figures are more solid indicators of campaign success.
Gatsas is leading Republicans in the money game, with fundraising totaling $1,044,315 since he announced his bid on March 17. Of that, $75,000 is a personal loan but 83 percent of it is from New Hampshire donors, according to a campaign press release.
Sununu raised slightly more than half as much as Gatsas, but he had the backing of out-of-state high rollers like the Marriott brothers of Marriott International, who donated a combined $12,000, party elites like Karl Rove ($500), Libertarian Party vice presidential nominee Bill Weld ($250), large corporations like Pfizer ($5,000) and CEMEX ($7,000) and former five-term Manchester Mayor Ray Wieczorek ($500).
Gatsas, meanwhile, was hoisted up by large individual donations by area businesspeople, auto dealerships, construction companies and property developers. For example, inventor Dean Kamen, who moonlights as a developer, also gave $5,000 to the Gatsas campaign. Kamen’s real estate partner also gave $2,500, and two of his development companies donated a few thousand dollars as well.
There’s less of a balance among the Democrats, where Van Ostern leads the pack with $1,078,279 raised by the filing deadline of Aug. 24. Connolly has raised about $452,000 and Marchand raised $101,799 (and spent $81,183).
Spiliotes said Marchand might appeal to a segment on the left who want to abolish the death penalty and legalize marijuana, but he doesn’t have a significant organization. Connolly has a stronger organization, according to Spiliotes, and some key endorsements, but Van Ostern, who sits opposite Sununu at executive council meetings, is apparently positioning himself as the Democratic frontrunner.
As with all primaries in a purple state like New Hampshire, which has a sizeable portion of independent voters, candidates must strike a balance between appealing to their base and the general electorate.
Sununu may have attained the moderate label by voting against, and then later for, a state contract with Planned Parenthood, but this earned him the ire of many conservatives in his base. While this may have hurt him in a primary race, which even he has conceded in the past, it may help him in a general election bid.
Gatsas and Sununu have both come across as the more moderate candidates compared to Forrester and Edelblut. The latter two signed on to the Americans for Prosperity pledge, but Gatsas and Sununu declined because they said they didn’t think it was a good idea to repeal expanded Medicaid (which now insures close to 50,000 people) without something to replace it.
But given their name recognition and relative favorability, that doesn’t seem to have hurt them so far.
The greater variability is on the Democratic side. Consider, for example, if Marchand won the nomination. Smith said the traditionally moderate Democrat has rebranded himself as the most progressive choice, with a platform that favors legalizing pot and taxing it to generate new revenue.
Such candidates haven’t had much luck historically at winning a general election, but analysts agree that the Democratic base has moved further left ideologically and point to Bernie Sanders’ win last February as evidence of this. How far left is still unclear.
Smith said Sanders also had high name recognition and a well-funded, well-organized campaign, most of which Marchand doesn’t appear to have. But if he managed to clinch the nomination, it would cast the general election in even more doubt.
Many analysts expect this will be a Democratic year, by and large, but a somewhat moderate Republican nominee with high name recognition cast against a lesser-known guy on the left of the field might give the GOP the edge it needs to win.
Even so, wresting the governorship from the Democratic party may prove difficult.
“Democrats have had a virtual lock on that corner office now, dating back a good decade,” Scala said. “It’s an uphill climb even for a Sununu.”
The shift to the left for Democrats can be seen in the rhetoric of most of the candidates, but not all go as far as Marchand.
“Even though Van Ostern has courted progressives, he hasn’t crossed that line, that red line, in terms of an income or a sales tax,” Scala said.
Neither has Marchand, who says he’s against such a tax, but he is the only candidate who hasn’t signed the no-new-tax pledge, according to Marchand’s campaign spokesperson Grant Hallmark.
Much has been made of the presidential race affecting state races down the ticket. Smith said it’s important to remember that both candidates are very unpopular and while Democratic party elites have seemed to unite behind Clinton more than Republican party elites have united behind Trump, that doesn’t mean the Democratic base is motivated to get out and vote for her.
Smith said if Democratic turnout is low, that could even things out for the candidates down the ticket as well.
“I think it’s gonna be pretty close regardless of who the nominees are,” Smith said.
Another significant wild card Smith points to is the youth vote. Young people voted for Sanders in February and Obama in 2008, but there’s a strong chance they will fail to turn out for this primary or general election.
Those who do generally vote in primaries are older and more conservative, so voters might pick a more conservative GOP candidate like Edelblut or Forrester and a more moderate Democrat like perhaps Van Ostern.
“It is a crapshoot. I wouldn’t make any predictions of who’s going to win this primary,” Smith said.