Defining left versus center labels in the Democratic gubernatorial nomination race

  • Molly Kelly Courtesy

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

  • Democratic candidate for governor of New Hampshire, Steve Marchand. August 2, 2016 (JENNIFER MELI / Monitor Staff)

For the Monitor
Monday, April 16, 2018

A storyline being bandied about in the newly contested campaign for New Hampshire’s Democratic gubernatorial nomination pits an establishment candidate against a party outsider.

Political observers are characterizing the race as a proxy rematch of the 2016 Bernie Sanders-Hillary Clinton presidential primary battle in the first-in-the-nation primary state. Former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand is the progressive outsider in the race, while former state senator Molly Kelly, who represented the Keene area for a decade, is the moderate establishment candidate with high-powered Democrats lining up behind her.

Kelly launched her gubernatorial bid last week after a couple of months of consideration and planning.

While Kelly repeatedly emphasized that she’s “running a grassroots, people-powered,” campaign, there’s no denying that some of the top Democrats in the State House and the so-called party establishment are backing her.

Among Kelly’s top backers as she jumped into the race were former New Hampshire House speaker Terie Norelli, former attorney general Joe Foster, and Democratic National Committee member and former state party chairwoman Kathy Sullivan. Quickly joining the list were the top two Democrats in the State House – Senate Minority Leader Jeff Woodburn and House Minority Leader Steve Shurtleff, who endorsed Kelly two days after her campaign launched.

Kelly also received backing to run from EMILY’S List, the powerful national organization that helps elect Democratic female candidates who support abortion rights. The group quickly endorsed Kelly after she announced.

“I guess I am an outsider in the sense of I have not served in elective office in Concord,” Marchand said the day after Kelly threw her hat into the ring.

He took aim at the so-called state Democratic establishment.

“I do believe there are a lot of folks that think that if you’ve not served for some time, perhaps significant time, in Concord in elective capacity, that that is a liability in a race like this,” he said.

He argued that in the “age of Trump” and in a state where the more progressive Bernie Sanders trounced the more moderate Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Democratic presidential primary, being a party insider might not be what voters want.

“I think anybody who believes that having lots of experience in Concord in this environment is an asset has not spent as much time talking to people around New Hampshire as I have,” Marchand said.

He touted his small-town outreach in the year since he launched his second straight campaign for governor.

“While there are a small number of people in Concord who may talk to each other in a form of echo chamber, that is in the hundreds,” Marchand said. “But we have thousands, many thousands of people in over 210 towns in the state who are identified supporters.”

Woodburn bristled at the establishment label.

“I find it a little bit disingenuous to lump us all together. I’m a schoolteacher from the North Country. I live in an apartment building in downtown Whitefield. There’s nothing establishment about me,” he told the Monitor.

“It sounds like Steve Marchand is whining about having an opponent,” he said.

Liberal activist and progressive talk radio host Arnie Arnesen said the establishment label fits Kelly.

Asked if Kelly was the establishment candidate, the Concord resident and 1992 Democratic gubernatorial nominee said, “Yes, of course she is.”

But sticking the moderate label on Kelly may not be as easy; Kelly herself has resisted it.

“I have a very progressive record that I can stand on in the Senate, and I’m going to take that experience – and those values and beliefs – and move forward based on all of those kind of issues I have worked on, I feel, almost my entire life,” Kelly said in an interview with the Monitor.

Woodburn highlighted that Kelly’s been at the “forefront of the major progressive fights that we’ve had here” at the State House.

University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala agreed.

“She was a liberal state senator from a liberal district. She represented Cheshire County, for Pete’s sake. So it’s not as if she’s coming in and she’s a moderate to conservative Democrat,” he said.

GOP officials made it clear where their party stands on Kelly’s moderate appeal, as the Republican Governors Association blasted her over past statements on taxes.

“Molly Kelly has an established reputation as a tax hiker whose policies would leave the Granite State less prosperous and less competitive economically,” the association said.

The group pointed to a comment she made a decade ago, when she told the Keene Sentinel that she would not pledge to vote against an income or sales tax, saying that “everything is on the table.” They also highlighted that she and three other state senators in 2012 opposed asking voters if the state Constitution should have been amended to permanently prohibit an income tax. And they also spotlighted her 2014 vote in favor of raising the state’s gasoline tax.

But Kelly was quick to bat away the criticism, saying she does not support broad-based taxes in New Hampshire.

“I am taking the pledge and I’m not supporting a sales or income tax,” she said.

She explained that her policy for her gubernatorial run isn’t necessarily the same as her stance – or lack thereof – as a state senator a decade ago.

“I never really had to take a strong position on it,” she said of her time in the upper chamber. “But I think the people in New Hampshire have spoken very clear. The majority of people do not want an income or sales tax.”

Marchand seemed to be on the same page, saying “I am not advocating for an income or sales tax.”

But then he quickly pointed out that his name is not on the tax pledge.

“I didn’t take the pledge in 2016 and I have not taken the pledge in 2018,” he said.

Marchand jumped in late in the 2016 race for the Democratic nomination, but ended up finishing a surprise (but distant) second to nominee Colin Van Ostern. This time around, he announced extremely early, launching his candidacy just over a year ago.

In 2014, Marchand became state director for No Labels, the national movement of Democrats, Republicans and independent voters who say they’re dedicated to bipartisan efforts to solve the nation’s problems. But during his first primary run for governor, Marchand ran to the left of the field on numerous issues, including the legalization of marijuana.

He’s once again claiming the mantle of the left – where the energy of the Democratic base lays right now.

“I am progressive and I’m proud of it,” he said.

Scala said the big question is whether Marchand can energize the legions of voters in New Hampshire who backed Sanders in 2016 “and make this into an establishment-versus-insurgent type of race that we’ve seen play out in some Democratic primaries.”

“Will that dog really hunt?” Scala asked.

But Arnesen predicted that Kelly “just brought the progressive base of the Democratic Party to Steve Marchand.”

The winner of September’s primary will face off against first-term Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in November’s general election.

Defeating Sununu in the general election won’t be easy, as he’s seen much of his agenda passed by the GOP-dominated state Legislature and for months has enjoyed strong approval ratings in public opinion polling. An online survey released last week by Morning Consult indicated Sununu with a 63 percent to 21 percent approval/disapproval rating.

Asked about Kelly’s entrance into the race, Sununu initially voiced ambivalence.

“I’m not even paying attention to the Democratic Party,” he told the Monitor.

But then he immediately added, “It’s getting a little nasty on the Democratic side. They’re running as far left as they can. It’s not necessarily a recipe for success in the state of New Hampshire.”