Democratic Candidates for Governor Testing Early Waters with N.H. Voters

Jun 6, 2016

It’s still about three months before New Hampshire Democrats decide who their party’s nominee for governor will be. But in pubs, coffee shops, and living rooms around the state the race is quietly picking up speed.

The people coming out to see the Democrats running for governor at this point in the race can be roughly divided into two groups:

The first includes people who know the candidate they are seeing very well. This includes party insiders and political activists but also people like Rob Ambrose of Center Harbor. He came to see Mark Connolly in Meredith last month. But it was more of a personal favor than an interest in politics that got him there.

“I’ve known Mark for a while," said Ambrose. "He’s actually good friends with my parents. And he married my wife and I.”

The second group checking out candidates is full of people like Ed Gardner of Meredith. He came to that same Mark Connolly event.

“I don’t know anything about Mark," said Gardner. "I’m an independent and I just thought I’d come here and listen and hear what he has to say, and get a little educated.”

You could say this second group -- interested, undecided voters looking to get themselves a little educated – those are the folks these events are really for. And they end up here in a variety of ways. Sometimes they see an ad for a candidate meet-and-greet online, sometimes the candidate cold-calls them, and sometimes, as in the case of Dick Nordgren who came to see Colin Van Ostern in Hanover, it wasn’t really their idea to come at all.

“My wife brought me," said Nordgren with a chuckle.

Reaching out to voters like Nordgren or even those who’ve yet to tune in, that’s the real challenge facing all three candidates. A recent poll from  UNH found that about 80 percent of voters in New Hampshire didn’t know enough about any of the three Democratic candidates for governor to have an opinion about them.

Gubernatorial candidate Mark Connolly speaks to voters in Meredith in May.
Credit Jason Moon for NHPR

Chris Galdieri teaches political science at Saint Anselm College.

“For each one of them, I think just getting their name known is that initial challenge they’ll have to overcome even before you get to talking about issue positions and what you want to do as governor and who has endorsed you and that sort of thing.”

For the record, their names are Mark Connolly, Steve Marchand, and Colin Van Ostern. But for those names to actually sink in with voters, these candidates have a lot of work to do. And that work could be especially hard this year where the race for governor will likely be overshadowed by two other competitive races at the top of the ballot: for U.S. Senate and president.

In addition, these candidates are beginning to campaign in the wake of a presidential primary that’s still on voters’ minds.

“I do think it could be challenging to run as a Democrat this year in the primary," says Galdieri, "simply because the presidential primary exposed this potentially huge gulf between the base of the state Democratic Party and the elected leadership of the party.”

Back in Meredith a few weeks ago, that tension was on display as Mark Connolly wrapped up his stump speech and took his first question. It was about the affluent community he calls home.

“I think of New Castle as the place where people who’ve got a lot of money who don’t want to pay their fair share of property taxes to the State of New Hampshire, go to not do their fair share. You’re from New Castle. Talk to me about why you live in New Castle and why you aren’t one of the people who are the problem: the people who’ve got money who don’t want to pay their fair share.”

Connolly, for his part, challenged the premise of the question.

“If you look at my record, when I went to graduate school, I earned my way through graduate school. Nobody’s ever given me anything. So I don’t apologize for where I live. I happen to like where I live.”

Exchanges like this illustrate the interesting spot that New Hampshire Democratic candidates find themselves in the post-Sanders world.

On the one hand, the path to the governor’s office for Democrats has been well worn over the last two decades. Jeanne Shaheen, John Lynch, and Maggie Hassan all ran as centrist pragmatists who promised to work across party lines. So far, the candidates this year seem to be following that model.

But the results of the presidential primary in New Hampshire suggest that many Democrats here may be hungry for something different than what past Democratic governors have offered.

Of course to find out what voters are really looking for, candidates will have to keep introducing themselves to at events around the state.