Former state senator to challenge Gov. Sununu in general election

  • Democratic candidate for governor Molly Kelly with her husband Art greeted supporters Tuesday morning in Harrisville. Paul Steinhauser—

  • Democratic candidate for governor Steve Marchand speaks with supporters as he arrives to vote in Portsmouth Tuesday morning. Paul Steinhauser—

  • Steve Marchand concedes to Molly Kelly alongside his wife Sandi Hennequin and daughter Abigail at Penuche’s Music Hall in Manchester. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Molly Kelly greets supporters at her primary night victory party, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, in Keene, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

  • New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Molly Kelly speaks to supporters at her primary night victory party, Tuesday, Sept. 11, 2018, in Keene, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Elise Amendola

Published: 9/11/2018 11:17:05 PM

Molly Kelly became the Democratic nominee for New Hampshire governor Tuesday by a decisive two-to-one margin after a campaign that focused on her experience in state government and eagerness to take on Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

Earning about two-thirds of the total votes, Kelly, a former five-term state senator stormed to the nomination, easily outpaced her opponent Steve Marchand and will face a general election matchup against a popular sitting governor.

In a speech Tuesday, Kelly argued she is up to the task.

“Let me send a message to Chris Sununu,” Kelly said to a crowd of supporters in Keene. “Do not underestimate me. I’ve been underestimated before.”

Kelly, a former financial advisor from Harrisville, got her law degree from Franklin Pierce Law Center and her start in politics in 2006, when she first ran for the District 10 Senate seat in Cheshire County. She was re-elected four more times, retiring ahead of the 2016 elections. But in March, after weeks of rumors and months of campaigning by Marchand, Kelly announced her bid.

She quickly became a Democratic establishment favorite, racking up endorsements from members of the state’s Congressional delegation to former colleagues in the state Senate. With growing resources, she wasted little time aiming speeches and advertisements at Sununu, critiquing his decisions while often ignoring her primary opponent.

Among those targets: Sununu’s support for a raft of business tax cuts in 2017, which Kelly says came at the benefit of out-of-state corporations and the detriment of social programs; a “school voucher” program championed by the governor that failed to pass the Legislature; and Sununu’s vetoes of two bills to support the state’s biomass industry and encourage solar energy.

Kelly, meanwhile, highlighted promises to reverse the tax cuts, introduce a paid family leave program, increase funding for child services, and increase adequacy grants to school districts.

The primary was largely genial, defined more by style than substance amid two candidates that largely agreed with each other. Marchand, the hard-charging former mayor of Portsmouth who had vied for the nomination in 2016, sought to define himself as the progressive policy thinker to Kelly’s experienced insider. After launching his campaign unusually early, in April 2017, he released numerous detailed policy proposals this year on such issues as education, energy, gun safety, and immigration.

“Obviously this is not the result that I and we desired or expected,” Marchand said Tuesday.

“I spoke with Molly Kelly,” Marchand told his supporters, announcing his concession. “We had a nice conversation. And I will tell you what I told her. She has my full support in the general election. It is important that we win this general election and what I can do to be helpful, I’m going to do. And I would urge you all to do the same thing as well.”

In facing Sununu, Kelly finds herself up against a popular governor in a state where first-term incumbents have historically prevailed. In a statement following his default nomination, Sununu sought to cast himself as the pragmatic conservative.

“I am humbled by the support, and look forward to promoting our pro-growth, pro-jobs agenda over the next 56 days,” he said. “We are getting the job done for New Hampshire – without raising taxes or fees – and Granite Staters are taking notice.”

The state Republican party was quick to brand her a “tax and spender,” calling her in a statement “a far-left liberal senator” and “a far-left liberal candidate.”

Outside Ward 4 polling booth in Concord, one voter cited what he saw as Kelly’s strengths.

“She knows the ropes,” said voter Dan Ellis, “She knows the Senate. It’s a tight group, and you gotta know how things work.”

But Ellis was less slightly less sanguine about the Democrats’ ability to take back the corner office.

“It’s going to be a tough slog,” he said. “She’s the best that we got.”

On Tuesday, Kelly insisted she had a message to resonate.

“It’s Chris Sununu giving wealthy corporations millions in tax breaks,”  she said. “When I’m governor, the people of New Hampshire will come first.”

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