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Feltes claims win over Volinsky in race to face Sununu

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky waves to voters with his daughter, Molly (center), and wife, Amy, at the Boys and Girls Club on Tuesday. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky greets State Senate candidate Paul Hodes at the Boys and Girls Club voting place on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andru Volinsky greets his friend Michelle McCord with an elbow tap outside the Boys and Girls Club voting place on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes campaigns Tuesday outside Concord’s West Street Ward House. GEOFF FORESTER / Monitor staff

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes greets with an elbow outside the West Street Wardhouse 7 voting place on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes outside the West Street Wardhouse 7 voting place on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

  • Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes outside the West Street Wardhouse 7 voting place on Tuesday, September 8, 2020. GEOFF FORESTER—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 9/9/2020 12:09:46 AM

Concord state Sen. Dan Feltes declared victory in the New Hampshire Democratic nomination for governor late Tuesday night, seeking to wrap up a cantankerous two-way primary with Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky and setting himself up as the third challenger to Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in four years.

Shortly before 11 p.m., his wife Erin by his side, Feltes addressed a crowd of two-dozen supporters in Concord and announced his victory.

“Tonight I am so honored to stand before you as your 2020 Democratic nominee to be the next governor,” Feltes said to applause from the crowd that was smaller than usual to prevent any spread of the coronavirus.

Volinsky did not immediately concede.

“We believe all votes should be counted before anyone declares victory,” the executive councilor said in a statement shortly before 11.

The results suggested a 53%-to-47% lead for Feltes with about three-quarters of the votes counted, which would be difficult for Volinsky to overcome.

A victory for Feltes will likely raise his profile to its highest yet in New Hampshire, 14 years after first arriving in the state as a legal aid lawyer out of law school. Born in Dubuque, Iowa, Feltes bounced around the Midwest through undergraduate college and law school, eventually landing in the Granite State in 2006. Since then, Feltes has sought to focus on public service, working as a lawyer for New Hampshire Legal Assistance through the Great Recession, as well as a mediator in private practice.

In 2014, Feltes won the Concord-area state Senate seat in an upset and set his focus in the Legislature on policy writing, working on bills relating to renewable energy, heath care, and campaign finance reform. He was chosen Senate majority leader in 2018, quitting his job and building up his profile as State House Democrats took power.

But the candidate has a long climb to go. Facing a four-year Republican governor with high popularity ratings and a storied political name – Sununu – Feltes now has a two-month runway to define himself to voters and convince them he’s worth ejecting the incumbent for.

In claiming the nomination Tuesday, Feltes brought to a near close a primary that had been defined more by the candidates’ similarities than their differences. Both Volinsky and Feltes had adopted key pieces of the central-to-left flank of the state Democratic Party, pressing for a state minimum wage, an expansion of solar energy, increased Medicaid investments, abortion rights, gun control and marijuana legalization.

Both men had strongly criticized Sununu’s coronavirus response and had promised state-wide mask mandates, the use of federal funds to backfill the state budget, and more detailed guidance to schools on reopening plans.

Absent many differences on paper, the candidates sought to carve out distinctions themselves. Volinsky positioned himself as the more progressive of the two options, a claim he underscored with an early endorsement from U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders. Volinsky was the candidate who spoke against the Granite Bridge pipeline when Feltes declined to take a position, the candidate who supported full marijuana legalization earlier on in the campaign, and the only candidate of the two who refused to take the “pledge” – the historically popular vow by New Hampshire candidates to refuse to allow broad-based sales or income taxes.

But Feltes countered that his legislative record in the state Senate had been one of “progressive results.” That included a bill for prescription drug relief through wholesale drug importation from Canada and price caps that passed this year; health insurance reform in 2014; an effort extending the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which covers 50,000 low-income Granite Staters; in addition to other bills in other areas, Feltes said Tuesday.

“It’s one thing to talk about progressive issues; it’s another thing to deliver results,” he said.

Either way, by September, the progressive label had stuck to Volinsky in many voters’ minds – for better or worse. Many Concord voters Tuesday cited Volinsky’s perceived left-leaning bona fides as either a draw for their vote or a deterrent.

For Christie Cho and KJ Deyett, that progressive streak was exactly what they were looking for. Cho’s vote for Volinsky was “a fairly easy call,” she said. On some progressive issues, Volinsky has appeared to lead the way in the primary, Cho said.

For one, she said, Volinsky had taken an early stance against the Granite Bridge pipeline, the controversial southern New Hampshire project that the Executive Councilor had opposed due to the inclusion of fracked natural gas. Feltes did not oppose the pipeline project, which was ultimately shuttered in August in favor of an alternative.

Volinsky had been loudest about the need to reduce and restructure property taxes by increasing state investments to towns, Cho contended. Signs have dotted the Granite State with Volinsky’s name and a cartoon pair of scissors cutting “property taxes.” Volinsky argued that by writing off a tax restructuring in the state, New Hampshire politicians were allowing property taxes to continue to rise.

“I would argue that they’re both positioning themselves as progressives, and one candidate actually has a track record of being progressive,” Cho said.

Deyett agreed. “It’s exciting to finally see a (candidate for) governor on the Democratic side who is talking about moving things forward,” he said.

Sally Quinn’s number one factor in the gubernatorial primary was education. “I know Andru Volinsky is very good with education and the kids, so that was my primary idea for voting for him,” she said.

That focus was sure to translate into votes on primary day, Quinn predicted, particularly among parents of school-aged children.

At the same time, Feltes’s support for the continuation of natural gas – and his decision not to oppose the Granite Bridge pipeline – was also a factor for Quinn.

“I think he thinks things through very well before he speaks,” she said of Volinsky.

In his victory speech Tuesday, Feltes characterized the coming head-to-head against Sununu as a fight to stop political obstruction, referring to the Republican governor’s 57 vetoes of Democratic-passed bills in 2019.

“We’ve made significant progress, but all too often ran up against Chris Sununu and his record-setting vetoes of bipartisan legislation,” Feltes said. “Well, we got to move past that. We got to turn the page on that kind of politics.”

But he also took aim at the governor’s coronavirus response, which he said directed aid to larger corporations at the expense of lower-income residents.

“How much of that $1.25 billion did you and your family get from Chris Sununu?” he said, referring to New Hampshire’s allotment of the CARES act money passed by Congress in March. “I bet you didn’t get any. You know who did? Big corporations.”

Much of the arc of the primary race could be measured in dollars. Throughout the year-long campaign, Feltes built up a formidable fundraising advantage over Volinsky, doubling the overall amount raised as of Aug. 20 – $1.03 million for Feltes versus $587,000 for Volinsky.

Feltes also courted a broad coalition of supporters, grabbing endorsements from Democratic politicians that spoke to his status as the more establishment pick.

In contrast, Volinsky sought to demonstrate progressive credibility with his endorsements, including the left-leaning New Hampshire Youth Movement and 350 New Hampshire Action, who endorsed him, but also the influential State Employees Association, the largest state employer’s group.

For some voters though, the real divide emerged over personality. Volinsky built a reputation as a hard-charging politician on the Executive Council; Feltes has a milder style in the State House.

That distinction pushed Holli Siff toward Dan Feltes. “I think that Volinsky’s got a lot of experience and he’s tough and he’s strong,” she said. “I don’t know that he actually is warm and fuzzy enough to cross lines.”

Part of that is personal temperament, but Volinsky’s ideology also played a role, too, Siff said. She would appreciate a progressive governor, she added, “but I think that someone needs to be able to work with everybody.”

Carol Mitchell voted for Dan Feltes on personality. “I think I just liked him better,” she said.

“I always liked the guy,” said Bill Mitchell, who said he’s played softball with Feltes in Concord for years. “He was someone who always thought along the same lines as I do.”

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