Governor's Race Not In The Spotlight, But May Be Up For Grabs

Oct 22, 2014

Havenstein and Hassan at the UNH Law Center for NHPR's Rudman Center Conversations with the Candidates
Credit Allegra Boverman for NHPR

New Hampshire’s governor’s race is flying a bit under the radar. Most of this season’s campaign drama – not to mention spending – is focused on the U.S. Senate and Congressional races. 

But no one would say that incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan has it entirely locked up. Republican challenger Walt Havenstein is seen as the underdog, but there are political factors – both national and local, that could help him beat a path to the governor’s office.  

New Hampshire history suggests that, absent a major screw-up, a first-term governor is a shoo-in for relection. And there are certain advantages that often accrue to an incumbent.

For instance, political support from communities that have benefited from government spending.

“As governor she fought for the tools and legislation so we can do our jobs…,” said Ken Chamberlain, president of the Manchester Police Patrolmen’s Association at an event this week in Manchester.

Chamberlain: “It’s an honor and privilege to give Governor Maggie Hassan formal endorsement …”

Governor Hassan: “Thank you so much. It is a tremendous honor to have earned your support…

The same day Hassan collected that endorsement, Walt Havenstein took a turn gushing over the risks police take, at a forum in Concord.

“The dangers they expose themselves to in serving us,” he said. "They got a lot of grief when somebody does something wrong, yet nobody talks about the magnificent things they do for us.”

It seemed heartfelt, but when his host, NHPR’s Laura Knoy, noted that all of the state’s major police associations had already spurned him in favor of Hassan, Havenstein had only this terse response:

“Perfect.”

Havenstein knows he’s got an uphill climb. Hassan’s tenure has given him few obvious handholds: The state budget, the expansion of Medicaid, even an increase the gas tax, were all passed on bipartisan votes.  

Perhaps by necessity, the former BAE executive’s candidacy instead has focused mostly on a traditional GOP theme: preservation of the so-called “New Hampshire advantage.” He suggests that Hassan is spending the state towards an income tax, (even though she’s promised to veto such a measure). He accurately charges that under Hassan the state’s economic recovery has lagged most of New England’s.

“I don’t see a recognition that if you don’t have a fundamentally competitive tax structure in this state, businesses on the margins choose not to grow or choose not to come here or choose not to start here,” he said in an interview.

Havenstein’s chief remedy would be to cut business taxes – cuts he says could be paid for through more efficient government operations.  

Hassan, meanwhile, is using that agenda to paint a dark picture of a future under Havenstein – and to identify him with Bill O’Brien, the polarizing former Speaker of the New Hampshire House.

“Taking us right back to the kind of devastating cuts we saw under Bill O’Brien,” she said. “Cuts that defunded our university system, cuts that defunded Planned Parenthood and critical services to our children and families.”

Havenstein says he would not cut spending for either Planned Parenthood or the university – but he hasn’t said how he would preserve them in the face of his proposed business tax cuts.

Dean Spiliotes, a political scientist at Southern New Hampshire University, says the gubernatorial election boils down to two competing narratives.

“Democrats say ‘all things considered, things are pretty good in the state and getting better,’ while Republicans say ‘that’s just window dressing, that the underlying structural features are quite worrisome,’ ” Spiliotes said.

There are other issues. Hassan continues to back allowing a casino in the state, which Havenstein does not. Havenstein would sign a “right to work” bill, hated by unions. Hassan would not.

And issues dominating the other statewide races are bleeding over: Hassan has tried to undermine Havenstein’s contention that he is pro-choice, while, just in the last week, Havenstein has been trying to link Hassan to President Obama’s unpopular policies.

“Everybody’s sort of grabbing whatever sort of general campaign tools are out there, you know, war on women, unpopular Republican speaker, unpopular Democratic president,” said Spiliotes. “At this point in the election, they’re really trying to motivate their base.”

And when it comes to the base, Havenstein, who’s never run for office before, is still trying to overcome his relative anonymity, even among Republicans.

“Well I’ve just heard the sound bites, I haven’t heard him,” said Rod Forey of Bow, a registered Republican. Forey said he was undecided about Havenstein – until he attended this week’s forum.  Havenstein’s blunt talk won him over.

“I was really impressed,” Forey said. “He was pretty candid.”

But with polls consistently placing Hassan as the first or second most popular politician in the state, Havenstein may have to hope that in the next two weeks, he can reach many, many more Rod Foreys.