Analysis: With Volinsky out, speculation grows on who will take on Sununu in 2018

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

  • Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky speaks at a People's Climate Rally in front of the State House in Concord on Saturday morning, April 29, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Executive Councilor and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern speaks to potential voters at a house party in Hopkinton on Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

  • Paul Hodes AP

  • Gary Hirshberg AP

  • Executive Councilor Chris Pappas is seen during a meeting at the State House on Wednesday, June 29, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz

For the Monitor
Thursday, September 28, 2017

Right now, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Steve Marchand has a straight shot at Republican Gov. Chris Sununu.

Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky, who was seriously considering a bid for the Democratic nomination, announced in a letter sent to the Monitor on Tuesday night that he would not launch a gubernatorial campaign, explaining that “the time is not right for me or my family.”

That means Marchand has the Democratic field to himself, for now.

Volinsky added that he will “proudly seek another term as a New Hampshire executive councilor representing District 2.”

Marchand praised Volinsky, telling the Monitor on Wednesday, “I hold Andru in the highest regard. He is a champion of progressive values, has been for decades.”

With Volinsky passing on a run, the big question is: Who will join Marchand in the primary fight to face off in November of next year against first-term governor Sununu?

Marchand said he “doesn’t very much worry about who else may or may not run” for the corner office.

Former executive councilor and 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern said running again next year really isn’t on his radar.

Van Ostern, who narrowly lost to Sununu, said he’s been encouraged to run again, but that another bid isn’t on his mind.

“My focus has been and is on helping the candidates whose names are on the ballot now in 2017.” he said. “Whenever anyone asks me about 2018 or 2020, I tell them that we have a lot of work to do in 2017 before we get there.”

With his statewide recognition thanks to last year’s campaign, and with his proven ability to fundraise, Van Ostern appears to have the luxury of waiting a few months before making any formal decision on another gubernatorial run.

It was a similar message from former two-term congressman Paul Hodes.

“Right now I’m flattered when people ask me to run,” Hodes said.

But he quickly followed up that “at the moment I’m focused in other areas,” adding, “I have not engaged in any formal process about running.”

For a moment, Hodes sounded like he was preparing a stump speech, saying “I think there are significant issues that face the state, and I think that Democrats have better answers and better policies and I want to see a shift of power in Concord in the Legislature, the Executive Council, and clearly in the corner office.”

He added: “It’s a very interesting environment, obviously with the national disaster in the White House and the governor trying to weave a political path to stay close enough to the White House but try to distance himself. Sometimes it’s hard to know where (Sununu) really stands.”

Hodes then lamented that “the race for governor of New Hampshire this cycle is going to be a very challenging race. You’ve got a one-term governor who according to the polls appears popular. Anybody considering a run for governor has to think long and hard and have the resources available.”

Only one governor in the past 90 years has failed to win re-election to a second two-year term. That honor goes to Republican Gov. Craig Benson, who lost his 2004 re-election to Democratic challenger John Lynch.

And after a legislative session that saw the State House pass much of his agenda, public opinion surveys suggest Sununu is very popular. The most recent University of New Hampshire poll, conducted last month, indicated that 62 percent of Granite Staters approved of the job Sununu is doing as governor, with just 16 percent saying they disapproved.

But Democrats point to a national political climate that is putting the wind at their backs, as well as to the three state House of Representatives special election victories so far this year in GOP-controlled districts. They see those races as hopeful signs that Sununu may be beatable in 2018.

In Tuesday’s special election in Sandown, Chester and Auburn, Democrat Kari Lerner edged out former GOP state representative James Headd by 39 votes in a district that Donald Trump carried by more than 20 percent last November.

Marchand and his staff helped campaign for Lerner, and he pointed out that he was canvassing with her on Saturday.

“I believe there is no town, region or county in this state that is beyond the reach of strong Democratic candidates,” Marchand said.

A late entry into the 2016 Democratic gubernatorial campaign, Marchand jumped in early the second time around, announcing his bid in early April.

“We’ve done about 100 meet and greets around the state already this year,” he said. “We’re raising the money. I’ve got a great staff, and we just have this work ethic that we do it one day at a time.”

As for possibly taking on Sununu, he said, “while it is unusual for a first-term incumbent to lose, we live in some pretty unusual times. We’re starting earlier than any major candidate has ever begun a gubernatorial race. I believe the right candidate with the right message and a work ethic that won’t stop can be very successful.”

Last year Marchand came in a surprise second to Van Ostern in the Democratic primary, edging out former deputy secretary of state and bureau of securities regulation director Mark Connolly. By all outward appearances, Connolly doesn’t seem to be seriously contemplating another bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination.

That doesn’t appear to be the case with former Stonyfield Farm chairman Gary Hirshberg, a longtime national Democratic party donor and activist. Hirshberg appears to be mulling a gubernatorial run, and this Monday’s appearance at a committee to elect State House Democrats fueled further speculation. That will likely increase when Hirshberg keynotes the Carroll County Democrats’ annual Grover Cleveland Dinner on Oct. 12.

Another name that comes up often is Chris Pappas. While many Democrats would love the three-term executive councilor and co-owner of the famed Puritan Backroom restaurant in Manchester to run, sources close to the 37-year-old Pappas say a 2018 bid for governor is not on his radar right now.

There’s speculation that another rising star among New Hampshire Democrats, state Sen. Dan Feltes, may be considering a gubernatorial bid. But Feltes is spending a lot of time with his newborn child and apparently hasn’t made any decisions yet about 2018.

The Republican Governors Association was quick to fire off an email hours after Volinsky’s announcement titled “Another top Dem gov. recruit passes on challenging Gov. Chris Sununu in New Hampshire.”

But some of the top Democratic strategists in the state didn’t seem concerned. Some predicted that if Democrat Joyce Craig tops four-term Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas in November’s mayoral contest, further energizing party activists, you’ll see the Democratic gubernatorial field grow.