Democrats in corner office 8 of last 9 elections
Democratic former state Sen. Maggie Hassan of Exeter defied the polls and pundits Tuesday by turning what had been forecast as a tight governor's race into an easy victory.
In becoming the second woman elected New Hampshire's governor, she will follow into office two of her mentors, retiring four-term Gov. John Lynch and former Gov. Jeanne Shaheen, the current U.S. senator.
After a heavy turnout, statewide returns had Hassan, a 54-year-old attorney, wife, mother of two and former state Senate majority leader, substantially ahead of 55-year-old Manchester attorney and conservative Republican stalwart Ovide Lamontagne, who lost his fourth bid for high public office in the state in the past 20 years.
Libertarian John Babiarz of Grafton trailed far behind.
► NH gubernatorial voting results
At her victory party at the Puritan Backroom in Manchester, Hassan thanked Granite Staters "for the trust you have placed in me. I will not let you down."
She promised to build "a stronger, more innovative New Hampshire," and said it appeared the state Legislature "will be nearly evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans.
"We should see this not as an obstacle but as an opportunity to move beyond the partisan divide," Hassan said.
"Together, we will build a smarter, more transparent state government on a foundation of fiscal responsibility and common sense," Hassan said.
"We will meet our responsibilities and we will do so without an income or sales tax."
Lamontagne, conceding to Hassan, said he was disappointed in the "negative attacks" waged against him in television ads by outside groups.
"They were not just negative attacks against me," he told a quiet crowd at Manchester's Executive Court. "They were negative attacks against our entire team. They were negative attacks against you.
"New Hampshire is a better state than that and needs to be a better state than that going forward."
He promised to stay involved in the community by working with charitable causes and businesses.
Hassan's victory marked the eighth time in the last nine elections, dating back to Shaheen's win over Lamontagne in 1996, that Granite State voters elected a Democrat governor. When she takes office, she will be the only woman Democratic governor in the country.
With 59 percent of the state's 301 voting precincts reporting, Hassan led Lamontagne, 55 to 42 percent, with 3 percent for Babiarz.
About 722,000, or 70 percent of the state's voting-age population, were expected to vote.
Kathy Sullivan, a co-chair of Hassan's campaign, said early returns quickly showed Hassan was "out-performing" Lynch in key towns in 2004, his first victory.
"She has won in some places that Lynch lost that year, such as Epping and Conway," Sullivan said.
New Hampshire voters were faced with an open governor's race for the first time in a decade, with Lynch stepping aside after four terms.
They chose to stick with a Democrat who, like Lynch, portrayed herself as a moderate.
Hassan defeated Lamontagne in his home Ward 7 in Manchester, 1,946 to 1,548, in Ward 6 by 2,370 to 2,222, in Ward 3 by 1,711 to 899 and in Ward 12 by 1,997 to 1,736.
She also won in the mostly Republican towns of Merrimack, 7,167 to 6,869; Milford, 4,150 to 3,335; Seabrook, 2,108 to 1,792; Epping, 1,902 to 1,472; Amherst, 3,610 to 3,532 and Belmont, 1,886 to 1,602.
She rolled up victories of more than 2-1 in Democratic wards in Concord, Keene and Berlin.
Lamontagne won Candia, 1,382 to 1,021; Goffstown, 4,516 to 4,240; Bedford, 7,478 to 5,017; and New Boston, 1,593 to 1,472.
Before the polls closed, Hassan and Lamontagne sprinted to a dozen polling places each in southern New Hampshire, making final pitches to voters.
"The energy feels really good out there and we're just working as hard as we can to communicate with every single voter," Hassan said.
Lamontagne hinted that he knew it would not be a good night for him.
"I'll always look back and second-guess myself," he said, "but I think we have had a great campaign staff and volunteer organization and we made our case for reforming state government.
"What I didn't expect," Lamontagne said, "was the amount of negative advertising targeted against me. It was difficult to respond to all of that.
"It was more than I can remember in any governor's race," he said. "There were large special interest groups which put a lot of money into demonizing me and hopefully the people saw through that."
Lamontagne and Hassan ended a battle focused on competing approaches on taxes, social issues and improving the economy.
"I've been really privileged to campaign across this state," said Hassan.
"The differences Ovide and I have talked about reflect a real choice in this campaign," Hassan said.
"I think the people of New Hampshire want to solve problems and move forward, and that's what I hope to do."
Lamontagne and Hassan were locked in a classic ideological battle that saw an estimated $12 million spent, primarily by outside interest groups such as the Democratic and Republican governors associations.
Each candidate - and outside groups aligned with them - tried to portray the other as ideologically extreme while trying to rally their own bases and attract the all-important independent voters, who make up about 39 percent of the electorate.
Both candidates pledged to veto a broad-based income or sales tax, but Lamontagne questioned the sincerity of Hassan's pledge because she supported an income tax a decade ago running for the state Senate. She renounced broad-based taxes in later campaigns, including in 2010 when she lost her seat to Russell Prescott.
She also opposed placing an income tax ban in the state constitution, saying future generations should not be restricted should they face fiscal challenges.
Lamontagne supported the constitutional ban and said Hassan's position is another indication that her veto pledge is an empty one. Hassan said her pledge is as genuine as his.
Hassan portrayed Lamontagne as a Tea Party extremist who would support restrictions on abortion and have government usurp other "women's health" decisions.
She tried to exploit Lamontagne's staunch pro-life and anti-same sex marriage positions.
Lamontagne supported repeal of the state's same-sex marriage law in favor of civil unions but would let existing marriages stand. He believes government should not require employers to provide insurance coverage for contraception, and he opposed government funding for the Planned Parenthood organization because its services include abortions.
Lamontagne insisted these subjects are not "topical" or "central" to the campaign and that the focus should be on jobs and the economy.
Hassan, who is pro-choice and supports same-sex marriage, received millions of dollars worth of help in attacking Lamontagne on the social issues from groups such as EMILY's List, Planned Parenthood Action and NARAL, which purchased television and radio advertising time and sent out direct mail.
Polls indicated the attacks created, or widened, a significant gender gap between the two candidates.
Lamontagne was making his second run for governor. He lost to Shaheen in 1996 and also ran unsuccessfully for the U.S. Senate in 2010 and U.S. House in 1992.