First Debate Highlights Early Divisions Among Republican Candidates for Governor

Jul 15, 2016

There are at least a few things the four Republican candidates for governor can agree on.

All of them – State Representative Frank Edelblut, State Senator Jeanie Forrester, Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas and Executive Councilor Chris Sununu – say they want to make New Hampshire more “business friendly.” 

They all think bringing commuter rail to New Hampshire is a bad idea. They oppose Common Core and want to give New Hampshire families more options for “school choice.” 

But there were plenty of places where they differed. When asked whether they'd sign a bill decriminalizing marijuana, Edelblut and Sununu said they support decrminialization, while Gatsas and Forrester were opposed. 

The candidates were also split when asked whether they would sign a “pledge” from the conservative advocacy group Americans For Prosperity, which asks them to commit to – among other things – passing Right-to-Work legislation and opposing all forms of the Affordable Care Act, including Medicaid expansion.

Edelblut and Forrester said yes, without hesitation. But Gatsas and Sununu stopped short of committing, citing concerns about what that might mean for insurance coverage.

“When we talk about getting rid of Obamacare, we better have a solution to that problem because 46,000 people are going to be going to the emergency room again and all of us are going to pay for the increase on health insurance," Gatsas said. 

“I believe in repealing Obamacare, I believe we need better solutions, but we better be smart about how we do those solutions and what we come across with," Sununu said.

But maybe the starkest contrast to emerge on the debate stage at Windham High School was the division between Sununu and the rest of the field. Throughout the night, Sununu’s opponents came at him again and again.

Take this exchange at the start of the debate, when Edelblut challenged Sununu to look closely at the state Republican party’s stance on abortion.

“I would challenge Chris to go back and look at that party platform and see if there are areas that need to be focused on and he can say this is what I support or don’t support so it’s transparent to all of us as voters,” Edelblut said.

Then, Forrester dissed Sununu's economic plan: “I have to say, when I saw that plan I thought it might have been written by Maggie Hassan," she said, prompting jeers from the audience.

And later on, Gatsas took aim at one of Sununu’s votes on the executive council.

“Certainly, somebody stands here and says they support choice, and yet they vote to fund Common Core. That’s a good question," Gatsas said. "Councilor Sununu voted to fund Common Core. Why? I don’t know.”

But Sununu was quick to defend himself.

“There is no one standing on this stage that dislikes Common Core, Smarter Balanced testing more than I do," Sununu responded. "I take real offense to that.”

In the specific case Gatsas was referencing, Sununu said he voted for the contract related to Common Core because rejecting it might have jeopardized funding that had already been distributed to districts across the state.

“I am not going to play a financial game of chicken with our kids in our schools," Sununu said. 

At least based on the crowd inside the auditorium, Edelblut was the clear favorite – boasting the loudest cheering section and the most support in the audience straw poll, capturing 59 percent of the vote.

Republican voters still have a few months to size up these candidates before heading to the polls in the primary, scheduled for September 13.