N.H. governor, U.S. Senate, House races take center stage in new year

  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu is seen at a news conference in front of the statehouse after winning his party's nomination Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2016, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) Jim Cole

  • Former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand participated in a gubernatorial forum on young children at New Hampshire Institute of Politics in Goffstown on Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) ELIZABETH FRANTZ

  • New Hampshire democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern listens to comments about affordable education from Dr. Alex Herzog, vice president of student affairs at River Valley Community College in Claremont, on Tuesday, Sept. 27, 2016. John J. Happel / Valley News

  • Dan Feltes, state senator for District 15, said he is considering a run for governor in 2018.

  • Rep. Ann Kuster talks to members of the media following a campaign stop with Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Tim Kaine of Virginia in Concord on Friday, Aug. 12, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Dr. Stewart Levenson speaks to the group of veterans and guests at Manchester’s Sweeney Post 2 on Monday July 31, 2017. GEOFF FORESTER

  • Josh McElveen

For the Monitor
Tuesday, January 02, 2018

Minutes after Gov. Chris Sununu reversed course and announced last week that New Hampshire would join a national public safety communications system being assembled by AT&T, he came under attack from Steve Marchand.

The only major Democrat to launch a gubernatorial campaign yet, Marchand criticized Sununu’s move as a “flip-flop” and said, “He has no idea what he is doing as governor.”

Expect more of these kinds of political charges as the calendar now turns to 2018 and Sununu, New Hampshire’s first Republican governor in a dozen years, faces re-election in November to a second two-year term.

With no presidential showdown or U.S. Senate contest in New Hampshire to divert attention, the race for the corner office; the battles over the Granite State’s two congressional seats; and the fights for control of the state’s Senate, House and Executive Council will take center stage in 2018.

As things stand right now, Sununu should be tough to beat. He saw much of his agenda passed by the GOP-controlled Legislature in 2017, and his approval ratings in the three most recent public opinion surveys ranged from 55 percent to 60 percent.

And as a first-term incumbent, he has history on his side: Only one Granite State governor in the last nine decades has failed to win a second term in office – Republican Gov. Craig Benson, who lost his 2004 re-election bid.

But controversial State House issues on the 2018 agenda – such as Medicaid expansion renewal and voting eligibility – could serve as landmines.

And Sununu faces potential hurdles from the national political climate – a gathering Democratic wave predicted by many political analysts, including some Republicans, feeds off anger over moves by President Donald Trump and the GOP majority in Congress.

While Sununu has kept his distance, to a degree, from Trump, he has backed efforts by the administration and congressional Republicans to repeal and replace Obamacare and strongly supported the newly passed federal tax overhaul. And the New Hampshire Democratic Party doesn’t miss a chance to tie Sununu to the very polarizing Trump on a near-daily basis.

“Sununu finds himself in a situation similar to John Lynch’s predicament in 2010: A popular incumbent of an unpopular party,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said, wondering whether Sununu’s popularity could hold up to the so-called blue wave. “Is Sununu enough to inspire Republicans to turn out in sufficient numbers to save their State House majority?”

New Hampshire Democrats are energized after taking eight out of 10 State House special elections in 2017 and winning big in November’s municipal contests. State Democratic leaders hope that enthusiasm will overcome the traditional low turnout of younger voters in midterm elections.

“I think the Democrats’ hopes hinge on the national climate bringing Gov. Sununu down as part of a Democratic wave,” said Chris Galdieri, professor of politics at Saint Anselm College. “That means finding a candidate who can take advantage of such a wave if one materializes, and tying Sununu to the national GOP ... a tall order against an incumbent with good approvals and a healthy campaign account.”

“But wave years (like 2006 and 2010) often see some incumbents who run otherwise outstanding campaigns lose,” Galdieri added.

Marchand, a former Portsmouth mayor, was a late entry into the 2016 race for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination. But he finished a surprising second in the primary. This time around he announced extremely early, kicking off his campaign in April.

But it’s doubtful Marchand will have the field to himself much longer. Former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern of Concord, who easily won the 2016 primary before losing to Sununu by about 18,000 votes, has said he is seriously considering a second bid for the corner office. Also mulling a run is state Sen. Dan Feltes of Concord.

The race at the top of the ticket in New Hampshire, as well as the national climate, could greatly influence the down-ballot State House contests.

Scala pointed out that well-educated suburbanites have been voting for Democrats across the country this year in special elections.

“New Hampshire Republicans in the State House will have their binoculars out all year long in 2018. They will be asking themselves, what’s that on the horizon: a Democratic wave, or a tsunami?” Scala said.

Kuster running for fourth term in 2nd District

Democratic incumbent Annie Kuster likes to tout her bipartisan efforts in Congress.

In a recent interview with the Monitor, the co-founder and co-chair of the House Bipartisan Heroin Task Force, highlighted her efforts to reach across the aisle when it comes to the drug crisis, as well as her work on another task force on ending sexual violence and harassment, the farm bill and the House Veterans Affairs Committee.

“I think my district is very moderate and bipartisan, people coming together and getting the job done. And that’s the case I’m going to make next November,” said Kuster, a Hopkinton resident.

Kuster, who’s known as a strong fundraiser, announced in October that she already had more than $2 million in her campaign war chest.

The two declared Republican candidates in the race are state Rep. Steve Negron, a U.S. Air Force veteran and businessman from Nashua, and Dr. Stewart Levenson of Hopkinton, a former U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs regional director who in 2017 was one of the top whistleblowers at the Manchester VA Medical Center.

Former WMUR political director and anchor Josh McElveen has said he is seriously considering a bid. He recently spent three days in Washington, D.C., meeting with GOP officials.

Republican sources said former state Rep. Lynne Blankenbeker may consider a run once her active duty in the U.S. Navy ends in January. And Jim Lawrence, the 2016 GOP nominee who narrowly lost to Kuster, said he’s still deciding whether to run again.

On the looming GOP primary, Kuster said, “I think they’re going to have a pretty big fight.”

Scala predicted that the factors that made 2016 a close call for Kuster may not replay in 2018.

“Kuster had a closer-than-expected race in 2016 because a lot of rural voters in her district cast votes for Trump and other Republicans. But I am doubtful they show up without Trump at the top of the ticket,” he said.

Wide-open race to succeed Shea-Porter

The 1st District, which stretches from Manchester and Hooksett east to the Seacoast and north to White Mountains, is one of the highest-profile swing congressional districts in the country. It’s flip-flopped between Democratic and GOP control the past four elections. And it’s also one of only twelve districts controlled by Democrats that Donald Trump won in 2016.

What makes the race even more enticing this time around is that it’s an open seat for the first time in 16 years. Incumbent Democrat Rep. Carol Shea-Porter announced a couple of months ago that she would not run for re-election in 2018.

Shea-Porter first won the seat in 2006, but was ousted by Republican Frank Guinta in 2010. She took the rematch two years later, but lost to Guinta again in 2014. Last year, Shea-Porter narrowly edged out Guinta to reclaim the seat once again. Guinta does not appear to gearing up for another run for his old seat.

With Shea-Porter out, a whopping six Democrats quickly jumped into the contest. Two Republicans are also running.

Expect the race in the 1st District to once again grab national attention. And it’s one of the few races in the country where the GOP hopes they can go on offense in 2018, as they mostly play defense trying to hold their U.S. House majority.