It was a scene you'd expect at your average campaign launch: dozens of supporters gathered at a press conference just steps from the State House, top party officials waiting to offer endorsements and a well-endowed fundraising committee waiting behind the scenes.
An average campaign launch — except for the fact that any kind of campaign for this particular office, New Hampshire’s Secretary of State, was all but unprecedented.
As he announced his intent to unseat longtime incumbent Secretary of State Bill Gardner, former executive councilor and gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern acknowledged that his approach is, at the very least, unconventional.
But Van Ostern argued that this kind of deliberate campaign strategy is what’s needed to bring about change in how the state runs its elections, not to mention the many other responsibilities that fall to Gardner’s office.
“I think that in order to ban corporate contributions, in order to end political gerrymandering, in order to add new security and new cooperation for local officials and modernize state services, it's going to take a lot of political work to get that done,” Van Ostern said Wednesday.
New Hampshire’s Secretary of State is elected every two years, not by voters but by the Legislature – meaning that to win, Van Ostern will have to persuade enough state lawmakers that he’s better suited for the job than the man who’s held the seat for four decades and counting.
To that end, he launched a political committee last fall meant to "support state issues and candidates who are moving New Hampshire forward." It was originally called "NH Forward" but was recently rebranded as "Free and Fair NH." As of its most recent filing, in December, it's raised more than $45,000 to pour into upcoming legislative races.
Van Ostern says he will not require legislators to support his candidacy in exchange for support from his political committee, but he will ask them to support his agenda.
That agenda, as outlined at Van Ostern’s press conference, is wide-reaching — covering both well-known aspects of the Secretary of State’s job (protecting New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary) and lesser-known responsibilities (overseeing corporate filings and acting as a resource for local election officials).
His stated priorities include advocating for an independent redistricting commission, modernizing business registration procedures and campaign finance reform, specifically a prohibition on “all corporate and business donations” in New Hampshire political campaigns. Van Ostern also pledged to follow that last rule in his own campaign moving forward.
Van Ostern also nodded to a point of tension between local officials and the Secretary of State’s office that resurfaced just this week, as towns were told they didn’t have the authority to postpone local elections despite Tuesday’s blizzard. The directive from the Secretary of State and attorney general drew outcry from municipalities who said the decision should rest at the local level.
“If I’m given this opportunity to serve as the Secretary of State of New Hampshire, I will do everything in my power to make sure we have clarity and cooperation and respect the traditions of local control,” Van Ostern said. “So that if we do get another storm in 2019 on town meeting day, folks are going to know well in advance of how they can be prepared to protect public safety and ensure voter turnout is what it needs to be in their own towns.”
Gardner: 'What I have done speaks for itself'
Gardner's 42-year tenure as Secretary of State makes him the longest-serving state elections chief in the country. Those deep roots in the position, coupled with his loyal defense of New Hampshire’s first in the nation presidential primary, has made Gardner something of a Granite State icon, known nationwide.
But critics — including his newly announced rival — have also found fault with Gardner’s involvement in the Trump administration’s now-defunct voter fraud commission, his support for stricter voter eligibility requirements and, as recently as this week, his insistence that his office hold the final authority over the scheduling of even town-level elections.
Speaking in his office Wednesday morning, Gardner said he'd never before encountered the kind of politicking Van Ostern’s rolling out for the role of Secretary of State.
"I haven't seen it, in almost a half a century," Gardner said. "It never happened, the person that preceded me. And it never happened, the person that preceded that person. But I have my style, other people have their style."
Gardner added that he’s never taken a political contribution nor asked for any donations in pursuit of the office.
“I’ve never had a PAC. That’s not the world here,” he said, referring to the corner office he’s occupied for the last four decades. “It’s the world all around us. But it’s not the world here.”
A challenge to Gardner would be rare but, as noted by WMUR, not unprecedented. At least two other people have run against him before – including former Republican Party Chairwoman Donna Sytek, who later became New Hampshire’s first female Speaker of the House.
"I said I would not use this office as a stepping stone for higher office,” Gardner said. “I would do the job here, and I would do it in a way separating the political fray outside from in here. And what I have done speaks for itself."
Van Ostern was asked Wednesday whether he would make a similar pledge not to use the role as a “stepping stone” for higher office. He responded, “I don’t have any intention to use it in the way that you’ve described it.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to be in this office for 42 years, the way Bill Gardner has been, but I know I’m going to fight hard to enact that platform, that’s going to be my top priority,” Van Ostern said.
At the same time, some have also started to question whether Van Ostern’s mere candidacy risks irreversibly politicizing what many view as an apolitical office. But he was quick to dispute that premise.
“I have been discouraged in the past year by some of the politicization that we’ve seen already," Van Ostern said.