Abortion rights and Kavanaugh nomination spill into N.H. governor’s race

  • FILE - In this photo taken Wednesday June 29, 2016 Executive Councilor Chris Sununu listens during the Council meeting Concord, N.H. Sununu is seeking the Republican nomination for governor. New Hampshire has struggled to attract and retain young people, a trend that's likely to continue without major policy changes. While the gubernatorial candidates propose solutions to the problem in bits and pieces, few have a full scale of ideas to address New Hampshire's demographic challenges.(AP Photo/Jim Cole/FILE) Jim Cole

  • Molly Kelly

  • Steve Marchand announces plans to make New Hampshire a “sanctuary state.” Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 7/29/2018 11:31:36 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu calls his support for President Donald Trump’s Supreme Court nominee “symbolic” and says he remains a supporter of abortion rights.

But the two Democrats challenging Sununu as he runs for re-election this year are criticizing his signature on a letter with fellow Republican governors in support of federal appeals court Judge Brett Kavanaugh. And they’re trying to make the battle over abortion and women’s reproductive rights a leading issue in New Hampshire’s gubernatorial campaign.

“When you look at the qualifications of Judge Kavanaugh, he’s one of the most eminently qualified judges that has come before the nomination process in Washington in decades. He has a variety of experience,” Sununu said in a statement.

This past week he joined GOP governors from 29 other states in signing a letter to the U.S. Senate’s Republican and Democratic leaders that expressed their support for Kavanaugh and urged the Senate to move “expeditiously to confirm his appointment as Associate Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States.”

“We signed on a symbolic letter of support with other governors, and I hope he gets through the process” Sununu explained.

After last month’s announcement from U.S. Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement gave Trump a prime opportunity to replace the crucial swing vote on the high court with a reliably conservative justice, many supporters of women’s reproductive rights fear the court may overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 high court decision that constitutionally protected a woman’s right to have an abortion.

“I am pro-choice. I support Roe v. Wade,” Sununu declared. “As a governor, I don’t judge any single judge on a single-issue litmus test. It’s about the Constitution, it’s about whether a judge will uphold the Constitution on a variety of different issues, and I have confidence the Senate will look at the broad base of his work and qualifications and confirm him accordingly.”

But Democratic gubernatorial candidate Molly Kelly quickly targeted Sununu’s signing of the letter.

“The governor cannot call himself ‘pro-choice’ and also support Brett Kavanaugh,” the former longtime state senator from Harrisville said.

“Kavanaugh’s nomination poses the most serious threat in a generation to Roe v. Wade,” Kelly added. “By supporting his nomination, Sununu is betraying women and working families across New Hampshire whose best interests should come first.”

Former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, the other Democrat running for governor, took a similar position when speaking to the Monitor.

“We all know that the nomination of Judge Kavanaugh is linked to the pursuit of Roe’s overturn. Donald Trump has been very clear about that for a long time. If you are governor who willingly signs a letter like this, it is difficult to call yourself pro-choice,” he said.

Kelly and Marchand have been highlighting the issue in the month since Kennedy’s announcement. The morning after Kennedy’s unexpected news, Kelly warned at an event in Manchester that “Roe v. Wade could be threatened.”

If the ruling were overturned, regulation of abortions would fall to the states. Kelly vowed that if elected she’d “work with governors across the country to make sure that women’s rights are protected.”

A few days later, Marchand unveiled a plan that includes “the public funding of abortion services.”

Both Democratic candidates continue to question Sununu’s commitment to women’s reproductive rights.

“I think the governor has a history of waffling on this issue,” Kelly said.

And Marchand challenged Sununu to “support explicit language that will make us the ninth state in America that will make abortion legal in the state irrespective of what the U.S. Supreme Court may or may not do in the next few years.”

Only four of the nation’s Republican governors didn’t sign the letter, including Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont.

Marchand seized on that fact.

“Sununu’s a lot more in the pocket of Donald Trump than these other moderate Republican governors.”

The governor called the criticism campaign-trail politics.

“Unfortunately, everyone wants to play politics in an election year,” Sununu said. “At the end of the day, it’s just about doing right by the people of New Hampshire. You have to call the balls and strikes like they see them, and if the Senate does that by throwing politics aside and do their job, I think Kavanaugh will be confirmed.”

Kelly and Marchand will face off for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination in a Sept. 11 primary, and both have made abortion rights an issue in their face-off against not just Sununu but each other.

“Molly Kelly clearly has not been as specific on protecting and expanding abortion rights in New Hampshire as I have been,” Marchand argued, touting his own plan.

Kelly said she’s been fighting to protect women’s reproductive rights her entire career.

“I’ve spent a lifetime, including as a state senator, championing women’s rights, defending Planned Parenthood, and stopping bad legislation restricting women’s access to family planning and contraceptives,” she wrote in an opinion piece last weekend in the Monitor.

While concerns over abortion rights could galvanize an already-energized Democratic base, it’s not clear how much the issue will resonate with the wider swath of general election voters in November.

Sununu continues to enjoy positive approval ratings in the most recent public opinion polls, and New Hampshire’s economy remains strong, with the state unemployment level standing at a low 2.7 percent.

“It certainly gives Democrats an opportunity to attack Gov. Sununu on the letter,” Southern New Hampshire University’s Dean Spiliotes said. “It’s certainly going to be an issue that’s important to Democrats.”

But Spiliotes, one of the state’s top political scientists, added, “Is it going to be the decisive issue in the fall campaign? I don’t necessarily think so.”

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