Secretary of State Gardner wins re-election bid in wild re-vote

  • New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner says show the proof of busloads of people from Massachusetts.

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner learns that he is one vote short at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner waits in his office during the vote counting at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Colin Van Ostern waits to go into the gallery before the vote on the Secretary of State at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Colin Van Ostern watches from the gallery at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu surprised Secretary of State Bill Garder outside his office to congratulate him on winning his twenty-second term on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Staff and onlookers in his office look on as Secretary of State Bill Gardner gets the news that he has finally won on the second vote on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Secretary of State Bill Gardner comes out of his office after learning that he had finally won the second vote at the State House on Wednesday, December 5, 2018. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Colin Van Ostern shakes Secretary of State Bill Gardner’€™s hand Wednesday at the State House in Concord after Gardner was re-elected to a 22nd term as the state’s top election official. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 12/5/2018 2:28:31 PM

Secretary of State Bill Gardner held onto his seat for a 22nd term Wednesday after a bruising re-election fight, tamping down a vigorous and well-financed challenge from former gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern.

But Gardner’s re-election took more than one vote, and it came with plenty of hand-wringing among lawmakers and onlookers.

In a secret-ballot election conducted by the House and Senate on Wednesday, Gardner, the nation’s longest-serving secretary of state, secured 209 votes in the second round of voting, putting him just above the halfway-mark among the 415 legislators casting votes.

“I’m very, very grateful for those of you that have let this happen,” Gardner said in a speech to the Legislature shortly after his razor-thin victory. “And I’m very grateful mostly because of the tradition of the secretary of state office.”

“...Our state elections are so unique and so special,” he added. “And that’s why our country pays so much attention when we’re on the national stage, and all these people from all over the world come to see our presidential primary.” 

An initial vote ended with a one-vote margin in Gardner’s favor, yet it yielded no winner. Gardner received 208 votes to Van Ostern’s 207 votes. But 209 votes were needed to win.

The victory came despite a robust campaign from Van Ostern, who announced his candidacy shortly after town meetings in March and put in a nine-month effort to mobilize representatives around a platform of modernization and reform.

Van Ostern, who raised $211,000 through a political action committee to aid the effort, charged Gardner with falling out of touch with modern practices and criticizing his support of a pair of bills tightening eligibility at the polls. Gardner, meanwhile, pointed to high voter turnout during his tenure and made a case for keeping the office in familiar hands.

Speaking after the vote, Van Ostern sought a tone of optimism, pointing to ideas that his campaign had ignited that he predicted would translate to action in the State House, even if they didn’t propel him to victory.

“Obviously I’m disappointed in the outcome, but what an incredible exercise in our democracy this has been,” he said, greeting a gaggle of reporters after watching Gardner’s speech. “I’m really proud that we put a spotlight on issues around protecting voting rights, and local control, and modernizing the office. I think healthy competition is good for our democracy.”

The election represents Gardner’s narrowest victory in his 42 years in office. First elected in 1976, he forged powerful political ties both within the state and beyond, gaining national recognition with his vocal defense of the state’s first-in-the-nation primary. But his participation in a commission to investigate voter fraud under President Donald Trump; his support of two bills, HB 1264 and SB 3, that would tighten voter eligibility; and a position he took in March denying town officials the ability to reschedule town meetings during snow storms rankled Democratic members.

From the beginning, Van Ostern employed a sweeping strategy of mailers, emails, coffees and educational events, presenting what he called a litany of shortcomings by Gardner and the office and promising improvement. Gardner, in contrast, refrained from public campaigning until late November, citing his duties overseeing the election returns and its recounts.

Supporters of Gardner called him a stabilizing leader of the office, arguing that a Van Ostern victory would politicize the office in favor of Democrats and jeopardize the state’s first-in-the nation-primary. Supporters of Van Ostern, meanwhile, rejected those charges and maintained that Van Ostern would advocate for needed reforms to improve access to elections.

In November, Gardner received a jolt when an overwhelming majority of Democrats demonstrated support for Van Ostern, in a 179-23 non-binding caucus vote.

But on Wednesday, the sitting secretary of state managed to string together a coalition of House and Senate Republicans and a handful of House Democrats to put him over the line.

Addressing legislators, Gardner acknowledged the issue-laden campaign of his competitor, hinting at the potential for change.

“I ask all of you, particularly the new ones,” he said. “I’m just down the hall. Come in. I welcome any ideas, even modern ideas.”

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