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Decision Day: Will cash be king in race for secretary of state?

  • Colin Van Ostern Paul Steinhauser

  • Bill Gardner Jim Cole



Monitor staff
Tuesday, December 04, 2018

By now, legislators have heard plenty from Bill Gardner and Colin Van Ostern. But on Wednesday, a long-running, precedent-setting battle for secretary of state will come to an end, as the New Hampshire House and Senate assemble to cast their ballots.

One central issue is the historic amount of money Van Ostern has raised, which divided up, is more than $500 for every state legislator. The other less-talked-about matter is the difference in the two platforms for the secretary of state office.

Here’s a rundown.

The issues

On paper, it’s a choice between tradition and change. Van Ostern has pressed for modernizing the office; Gardner has said the office already is modern and that the structure of New Hampshire elections is time-tested and effective.

Before breaking down the proposals flying around this race, it’s worth sorting them into two categories: those the secretary of state can actually do and those that the office can advocate for.

Van Ostern offers a dense, detail-shrouded platform, that includes things like requesting more frequent financial audits of the secretary of state’s office from the Legislative Budget Assistant, whose last assessment dates to 2007. Gardner has argued that the audits come at the same pace as other departments and that his office has quickly responded.

Van Ostern says he would revamp the website, which includes voting information and campaign finance reports. He’d attempt to boost coordination between state departments and create a “one-stop shop” for business registration. And, he says, he would build new digital avenues to take in business applications and administer “Certificates of Good Standing.”

Then there are the platform items that would need help from the Legislature, whether through changes in law or appropriations. Chief among them: the creation of “a professional, nonpartisan director” over state elections. Amid a race that has been overcome with charges of partisanship, Van Ostern has positioned this as a move toward independence.

Van Ostern has also proposed working with the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules to increase legislative oversight of rule changes in the office and strengthening privacy statutes around the vital records division.

Gardner counters that most of the proposals are unnecessary for the functioning of the office.

For all the technical proposals from the Van Ostern campaign, the attention grabbers of this race have been the ones the office doesn’t have direct control over. For many in the Democratic majority whose votes will seal Gardner’s fate, front and center are two bills: House Bill 1264 and Senate Bill 3.

The bills, both of which tighten voter eligibility at the polls, were supported by Gardner as prudent election oversight measures. They’ve been castigated by Democrats as “voter suppression” measures, and some of that scorn has spilled into the race for secretary of state.

Van Ostern has also talked in favor of redistricting reform, endorsing an approach being considered by state legislators to put the once-a-decade process into the hands of an independent commission.

On the face of it, none of those latter positions – chiefly pushed by Democrats – fall under the control of the office, and their association with Van Ostern’s campaign has factored into the accusations of partisanship. Van Ostern supporters argue that issue advocacy is as much a piece of the job as oversight and administration.

In speeches and letters, Van Ostern has proposed structural and technical changes, while Gardner has pointed to the state’s high turnout figures as evidence that present policies are serving the state well.

The money

For months, it’s been a dominant issue for his opponents: Colin Van Ostern’s campaign money. Through donations large and small, the former gubernatorial candidate amassed a $211,000 war chest over eight months – easily the largest bid in state history for the office that tracks campaign finances.

In waging the first significant challenge to Gardner’s post in years, Van Ostern has jumped feet-first into the familiar world of political fundraising. That’s meant following a well-worn playbook: creating a political action committee, setting up a campaign office, hiring a staff, sending out mailers and soliciting big dollar donations early on.

More than half of the money has been spent on salaries for four staffers with the Free and Fair New Hampshire political committee. Printing and mailing costs came out to $27,335 and the campaign also shelled out around $19,000 each for two digital advertising companies: 4Degrees and BCom solutions.

To kick off the fundraising campaign in March, $15,000 was transferred from a political action committee managed by Van Ostern after his 2016 election defeat.

High-dollar donors contributed early and often. Sen. Martha Fuller-Clark hit the $5,000 contribution limit in June, joined by other major contributors like Geoffrey Clark and John Hoffman.

The campaign also raked in dozens of smaller contributions, from five dollars to $50.

Other State House Democrats contributed, too. Rep. Susan Almy, a Democrat of Lebanon, put in $1,050; Sen. Martha Hennessey $250, and former Concord Sen. Sylvia Larsen chipped in $100.

Such a robust operation has served Van Ostern well, whose mailers and campaign events have reached deep into far-flung legislative corners. And the candidate and his supporters have long defended his approach, arguing that it was necessary to take on an entrenched incumbent.

But the money has also invited plenty of criticism that the campaign will change the nature of the office for good, vaulting it into the political realm for cycles to come.

By contrast, Gardner raised no money.