On the Political Front: After Primary, Race for Governor Quickly Takes Shape

Sep 19, 2016

"On the Political Front" is our weekly check-in with NHPR's Senior Political Reporter Josh Rogers.

  With last week’s primaries in the books, the general election is now officially underway. It’s obviously felt that way for some time in the U.S. Senate contest between Kelly Ayotte and Maggie Hassan, but now it is the case in all the races. Let’s talk about the other statewide contest, the race for governor.

When voters picked their nominees in that race - Chris Sununu for Republicans and Colin Van Ostern for Democrats - they picked the candidates who entered their primaries as favorites. Van Ostern obviously won with much greater ease than Sununu did; Van Ostern’s margin was two to one, Sununu’s was just 1,000 votes. But we are ending up with the nominees who entered the race most likely to win, and have a contest that pits two guys who know each other very well from the four years they’ve shared sitting around the Executive Council table.

They do know each other well, and their council records do show some differences – a split over commuter rail, an issue Van Ostern has put at the center of his run, over money for solar projects - Van Ostern has supported these, Sununu has opposed them - and on funding for Planned Parenthood.

Sununu voted for the most recent Planned Parenthood contract, a position that probably cost him some voters during the Republican primary, but he also voted against a similar contract last year, which Van Ostern has noted repeatedly. They also split on a contract to implement expanded Medicaid. There have been differences on some nominees. Sununu, for instance voted with Republicans to block one of Governor Hassan’s judicial nominees because she was  a public defender. These differences have and will get attention but I expect Van Ostern and Sununu to use each other’s council records in service of broader arguments about their respective fitness to lead New Hampshire rather than be the prime focus.

You mean this isn’t going to be an election decided by parsing Executive Council votes?

A bit of that will be inescapable. But the broader arguments the campaigns are seeking to make - that the other candidate wrong for New Hampshire - is already becoming clear. Sununu is endeavoring to cast Van Ostern as a guy whose ideas, and by association, his pedigree, are insufficiently New Hampshire. The theme that Democrats are out to change something essential about New Hampshire isn’t a new line of attack from Republicans. And it hasn’t worked too well in recent governor’s races. But as far as this applies to Van Ostern, personally, we are already hearing the argument that he should be seen as opportunist – I know that’s a shocking allegation to make against a politician -- whose roots as a campaign staffer belie any claim to being a  “business leader,” which is how Van Ostern, who does has worked at Stonyfield Yogurt and SNHU, is casting himself.  He moved here for politics was a stress I heard from more than one Republican at the GOP’s unity breakfast last week. True but that was back in 2002. Yet it’s also true Van Ostern’s campaign can get touchy when reporters note his long background in campaign work. So perhaps that is a bit of a sensitive spot.

 And how are Democrats going after Sununu?

With Planned Parenthood and Medicaid expansion being core campaign issues for them they are already using them against Sununu. The same goes for thing like the minimum wage; Sununu opposes reestablishing a state minimum wage. Beyond those arguments, which would be deployed against any Republican who ran, their arguments will be helped perhaps by Sununu’s family history in  state politics – his dad was Governor, of course,  his brother a Congressman and U.S. Senator. And that is the suggestion that to back him is to vote for something outmoded. Now Chris Sununu is just 41, Van Ostern is only 37, which is another aspect of this race that bears watching, but one thing you hear from Sununu is a stated desire to return New Hampshire to what it was like when he was growing up. He means the business climate, and he’s also said similar things in regard to drugs, but if this race could get boiled down to an argument about whether New Hampshire needs to be more like it was 30 years ago, that’s a debate Democrats tell me they’d welcome.