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Why N.H.’s blue wave stopped at Molly Kelly’s feet 

  • Wearing a Gov. Chris Sununu hat, Gates Lucas gives a thumps up outside the State House on Wednesday after winning a seat in the state’s House of Representatives. A Republican, Lucas defeated state Rep. Sue Gottling in Sullivan County’s 2nd District by 120 votes. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff



Monitor staff
Wednesday, November 07, 2018

It’s a New Hampshire story that’s played out time and time again: A gubernatorial candidate loses a bid for the corner office, even as the party makes strident gains to retake the State House. The sitting governor hangs on but faces daunting opposition in the Legislature, forcing two years of compromise or gridlock.

It’s called split ticketing, and for Molly Kelly, it was a phenomenon that proved punishing Tuesday. In towns and cities across the board, the Democratic gubernatorial hopeful earned far fewer votes than her party colleagues, even amid record turnout and national narratives propelling Democrats.

The dynamic isn’t new. But satisfying answers on why it happens are hard to come by.

“This is the third straight time something like this has happened,” said University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala, referencing similar outcomes in the past two midterm elections. “The New Hampshire governor survives thanks to enough cross-over voters who are essentially willing to make an exception in the case of the governor.”

Though Republican Gov. Chris Sununu won a second term, the New Hampshire House, Senate and Executive Council all flipped from Republican to Democratic control.

The Granite State’s last five Democratic governors were in the opposite situation for at least part of their tenures, but Sununu will be the first Republican governor in modern history to face a Democratic Legislature.

For Kelly, the town-by-town numbers were stark. In the crucial city of Manchester, the former state senator lost to Sununu by 2,041 votes. But Democratic 1st Congressional District candidate Chris Pappas, a popular local businessman, cleared that same city by 7,652 votes.

In Nashua, Kelly won by 1,214 votes, even though 2nd Congressional District candidate Annie Kuster dominated with a 6,334 vote margin – more than a fivefold difference. Kuster also bested her opponent in Concord by 6,334 votes, while Kelly had a margin of 2,914 votes, less than half that amount.

In town after town, New Hampshire’s blue wave swept in Democratic wins in House districts and key seat flips in Senate districts, but came up short when it came to the governor’s column.

Even in Rochester, a growing GOP stronghold, Republican congressional candidate Eddie Edwards hung on with a 104-vote victory – a victim of the surging wave across the 1st district. But Sununu cleared the city with 2,234 more votes than Kelly.

So why the shortfalls? To some academics, the dynamic is straightforward: a high share of cross-over voters. Many in New Hampshire, like in Massachusetts, pride themselves on rejecting straight-party voting. Even in wave elections, they may follow national motivations to vote one way except for one or two key races.

“This is such a godawful cliche, but those independent-minded New Hampshire voters,” said Chris Galdieri, political science professor at St. Anselm College. “I think folks here who say they’re independent may just actually be independent.”

That’s perhaps a product of the state’s evolution from a Republican-dominated past to a more mixed and even Democrat-leaning present, Galdieri said. Even as political loyalties shift, many don’t want to feel boxed into one party.

But then there are factors specific to this governor’s race. From the outset, Sununu had three key advantages, according to Scala: popularity, incumbency and a strong economy. That brought him name recognition and goodwill, which may have successfully walled him off from voters dissatisfied with the president and the national Republican party.

Governors across the country are often regarded as separate from the national fray; first-term incumbents are given even more credence, Scala and Galdieri said.

It’s why when Republicans stormed the State House in 2010, one of the biggest electoral swings in recent decades, they spared Democratic Gov. John Lynch, who stayed on two more years. It’s why when Gov. Maggie Hassan helped other Democrats take the House in 2012, Hassan could keep the corner office in 2014 despite the chamber flipping back.

And it’s also why what works to keep a governor in power – appeals to bipartisanship, a broad platform and deep record in office – does not always work for an individual House representative or senator. With lower name recognition, those candidates may get less of the benefit of the doubt from constituents, and can more easily be lumped in with their parties or targeted over specific votes.

“Down-ticket in state legislative races, voters need kind of more help, more hints than they do for the governor’s race,” said Scala. “Voters don’t know their state legislator that well. Occasionally they do, but not always. There’s a staying power of incumbency that isn’t as strong down-ticket.”

And the governor used that dynamic to his advantage, highlighting bipartisan achievements to keep center-left voters on board.

“Sununu’s campaign was in a lot of ways conducted to sort of give people who were voting Democratic down-ticket permission to vote for him,” Galdieri said.

“It was not about: ‘Look at all of these hardline, conservative laws we’ve passed,’ ” Galdieri said. “He’d talk about jobs, he’d talk about nurses, he’d talk about opioids and that sort of thing.”

To tip the scales, a political challenger can always try tying the incumbent governor to national dynamics – in this case the presidency of Donald Trump.

The tactic may not have proved particularly effective in Sununu’s case, Scala and Galdieri said.

“I don’t think Sununu impressed people as being a particularly ‘Trumpy’ politician,” Scala said. “I think people judge governors more on local than national. I think that’s tough to beat.”

What could have made the difference, the two agree: a longer campaign cycle, more support from the Democratic Governor’s Association and stronger efforts to improve Kelly’s name recognition.

“I think Kelly needed more time and more money,” Galdieri said. “The September primary” – one of the latest in the country – “I don’t think did her any favors.”

But in the end, there’s no way to pigeonhole why voters cross columns on their ballots year after year, local experts say. In New Hampshire, it comes with the territory.