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Race for governor: It’ll be two executive councilors competing for the corner office

  • Republican gubernatorial rivals Frank Edelblut, left, and Chris Sununu cross paths at the polling station in Bedford, N.H. Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2016. Both are seeking their party's nomination in Tuesday's state primary. (AP Photo/Jim Cole)

  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Chris Sununu waves to the crowd at the Unity breakfast at Bedford Village Inn Wednesday morning as his opponent Frank Edelblut claps in the foreground.

  • Republican gubernatorial candidate Frank Edelblut claps as his opponent Chris Sununu speaks at the Unity breakfast at the Bedford Village Inn Wednesday morning.

Published: 9/14/2016 10:43:45 PM

For the first time in recent memory, two members of the state’s Executive Council will face off in the race for governor – Republican Chris Sununu and Democrat Colin Van Ostern.

The matchup wasn’t set until Wednesday afternoon, when Sununu was declared the winner in a tight Republican primary race against political newcomer Frank Edelblut.

Secretary of State Bill Gardner confirmed that Sununu narrowly defeated Edelblut, a first-term state representative, by 804 votes out of more than 104,000 cast. Though eligible for a recount, Edelblut quickly conceded the race, saying Republicans should focus their attention on defeating Van Ostern.

“I am happy that I will have the opportunity to vote for Chris Sununu for governor,” Edelblut said in a brief press conference with Sununu outside the State House. “We are going to defeat Colin Van Ostern.”

Van Ostern of Concord handily won his own Democratic primary race Tuesday night against competitors businessman Mark Connolly and former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand.

The Sununu vs. Van Ostern matchup pairs two relatively young elected officials who serve together on the Executive Council, the government body that approves state contracts and signs off on state commissioners and judges.

Both candidates pledge to revamp the economy, but split on issues from commuter rail to energy.

Van Ostern, 37, advocates bringing rail from Massachusetts to Manchester saying it’s an economic booster, while Sununu says the money should be used to upgrade existing infrastructure and finish widening Interstate 93.

Sununu, 41, supports the Northern Pass project, while Van Ostern says the transmission line should be further buried through the state.

The men are vying to replace two-term Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan, who is seeking to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte this fall. And a general election between the two is sure to focus on their council voting records.

Sununu took aim at Van Ostern during a state Republican Party unity breakfast Wednesday morning, calling him a “rubber stamp” for Hassan’s “extreme left-wing agenda.”

In a phone interview, Van Ostern said he and Sununu have had “very clear” policy disagreements on the council, referencing his support and Sununu’s opposition for contracts implementing expanded Medicaid and funding renewable energy projects.

“I have been 100 percent consistent in supporting Planned Parenthood,” Van Ostern said, alluding to Sununu’s shifting votes on the issue.

Sununu, who identifies as pro-abortion rights, has taken heat for voting for and against a state contract funding Planned Parenthood. He opposed the contract in 2015 – when a series of now discredited videos were released purporting to show Planned Parenthood officials discussing the sale of fetal tissue. Sununu later reversed course and supported the funding in 2016.

Both candidates come from political backgrounds and share a similar trajectory as elected officials.

Sununu of Newfields hails from one of the most well- known political families in New Hampshire. His father, John H. Sununu, was the state’s governor, and his brother, John E. Sununu, served as U.S. senator.

Van Ostern moved to New Hampshire in 2002 to take a job on then-Gov. Jeanne Shaheen’s bid for U.S. Senate, and later worked on several other campaigns, including Annie Kuster’s 2010 bid for Congress.

Sununu was first elected to the five-member Executive Council in 2010, while Van Ostern joined two years later.

Sununu is CEO of Waterville Valley Resort, which his family purchased from a California company in 2010. Van Ostern was a brand manager at Stonyfield Farm and then moved on to work at the nonprofit College for America.

The Executive Council hasn’t traditionally served as a launching pad for higher office. The last councilor turned governor was Republican Judd Gregg, who served on the five-member body a decade before taking the corner office.

“It’s certainly an unlikely path. It historically has been,” said political scientist Wayne Lesperance of New England College. “As much as the office has launched these candidates, you have two individuals who are go-getters and have been grooming themselves in different ways, to seek higher office.”

The race will likely be a focal point of the biweekly council meetings, over which Hassan presides. There are three scheduled between now and Election Day on Nov. 8.

Close race

The Republican race remained undecided for much of the day Wednesday.

At the party unity breakfast – where primary winners speak – both Sununu and Edelblut addressed the crowd as results showed them a mere 1,200 votes apart with a handful of towns not yet reporting.

“It was a fun, fun race,” said Sununu, who thanked his three competitors. “Now it’s time to really get down to business.”

Edelblut, for his part, said Republicans need to defeat Van Ostern in November.

But by 1 p.m. the secretary of state’s office had certified Sununu as the winner with 32,391 votes to Edelblut’s 31,587 out of more than 100,000 cast.

Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who came in a distant third, quickly congratulated Sununu on the win.

“It’s time for all Republicans to unite behind Chris Sununu’s candidacy and help him win in November,” Gatsas said in a statement.

Edelblut conceded an hour later on the front steps of the State House, and said he would campaign for Sununu this fall.

Many expected a tight race between Sununu and Gatsas, but Edelblut had a strong showing and overtook the Manchester mayor early on primary night. Edelblut and Sununu traded first place back and forth as results trickled in from 300 precincts across the state.

Sununu benefited from high name recognition in the crowded four-candidate Republican field. Edelblut was virtually unknown by voters when he entered the race, but he gained a following among libertarian-leaning Republicans.

The contest is the tighest GOP primary for governor in more than three decades. The next closest, in 1982, saw Sununu’s father defeat Robert Monier by 1,794 votes.

“It’s almost a family tradition,” former govenor John H. Sununu said, remarking on his son’s tight race. “Primaries in New Hampshire are really unpredictable.”

(Allie Morris can be reached at 369-3307 or amorris@cmonitor.com.)


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