The nail-biting, two-ballot victory for Secretary of State Bill Gardner was a colossal upset that was not even thought possible a few weeks ago.

Many veteran reporters tweeted Gardner’s demise right after former Executive Councilor and Democratic operative Colin Van Ostern of Concord trounced Gardner in the Democratic caucus last month by a 179-23 vote.

Most of them had no clue that Gardner got this job back in 1976 not as a darling of his own party, but as a maverick who had won over the hearts and minds of back-bench lawmakers from both parties.

Gardner, 70, won his record 22nd term because barely enough of the rank-and-file respected his work on behalf of the state or just weren’t quite sure what to make of the ambitious Van Ostern, 39, who raised $250,000 for this non-partisan office.

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Bill Gardner walks with his advisers as the House debates the election results for the Secretary of State race at the State House in Concord on Wednesday.

Fortunately for legislative leaders, Gardner sealed his razor-thin, 209-205 win on the second ballot because he was seething that after a first-ballot narrow lead he was not declared the winner.

Gardner and retired deputy secretary of state Bob Ambrose were striding out the office door in triumph at news of the 208-207 edge over Van Ostern only to be called back into the office and told by House leaders that it was one short of victory.

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Secretary of State Bill Gardner gets the news from Dave Lang that his 208 votes against 207 for Colin Van Ostern isn’t enough to win. 

New House Speaker Steve Shurtleff, D-Concord, declared that it takes 50 percent plus one vote to elect a constitutional officer.

This came a few hours after the House had adopted rules for electing its own offices that essentially said whoever has the most votes in any race wins.

Gardner was not giving any quarter when asked by reporters if he quarreled with the first-ballot decision that he didn’t win.

“I won on both ballots,” Gardner said.

Indeed right after that first-ballot outcome, Gardner was holed up in his office with key allies reviewing what options they had in case the second ballot went to Van Ostern. Among those options was to impound the first set of ballots so they could be used to challenge the legitimacy of a later unfavorable outcome in court.

This was a real concern when several House Republicans told their leaders they “had to go to work” and left the chamber.

Frantically, Gardner allies reached out to those exiting the building and got all but one of them to come back, including Rep. Chris True, R-Sandown, who was laboring with a leg that had swelled up to twice its size.

“I have never seen Bill so upset before. He just couldn’t believe they failed to declare him the winner the first time,” said a close Gardner ally who was in the room.

“He could barely contain himself and who could blame him?”

A short time later, new House Republican Leader Dick Hinch, R-Merrimack, made the mistake of wading into Gardner’s enclave and getting a tongue-lashing for why he didn’t challenge the chair’s ruling.

“I don’t know what they thought I could accomplish,” Hinch said.

Shurtleff was following the lead of longtime House Clerk Paul Smith, who pointed out the House and Senate had not set rules for meeting in joint session like this for two decades but the 50-plus-one historically was the standard.

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Secretary of State Bill Gardner gets sworn in by House Speaker Steve Shurtleff at the State House in Concord on Wednesday.

On the second ballot, Gardner picked up one vote, Van Ostern lost two. One person who was present for the first vote, missed the second. And for the second straight time, one person didn’t vote for either candidate and probably wrote in someone else’s name.

Without giving away his source, Gardner said he got tipped off that he might gain on the redo.

“A person came in from the House, a freshman came in and gave me a reason why he said it’s not going to come out the same way, it’s going to be a bigger vote for you,” Gardner related.

Van Ostern defended his raising record money for this job while Gardner refused to take any contributions.

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Candidate for Secretary of State Colin Van Ostern (front row at center) watches the proceedings ahead of the vote at the State House in Concord on Wednesday.

“Frankly I don’t think it could have been this close nor could we have put a spotlight on these issues if we didn’t mount this effort and I’m proud of what I did,” Van Ostern said.

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Gov. Chris Sununu took a special pleasure at seeing Van Ostern lose again after having beaten him in a tight race for governor in the 2016 cycle.

“40 more years, 40 more years,” Sununu crowed as Gardner hugged his staff and his supporters in his office after the near-political-death experience.

A day earlier out in Portsmouth, Sununu had been confident enough to predict that Gardner would win decisively.

“Everyone in New Hampshire should rejoice that politics and money did not drive the result today,” Sununu said.

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This was a big setback for House Democratic leaders and that was evident in Shurtleff’s just-for-the-record statement on the result.

“Congratulations to Bill Gardner on his reelection as Secretary of State today. I look forward to working with Secretary Gardner during the upcoming term,” Shurtleff said.

A prediction: Shurtleff and Gardner will have an excellent working relationship even though Shurtleff was at the first news conference last March endorsing Van Ostern.

(For more Granite Status, go to www.unionleader.com.)

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Contact Kevin Landrigan at klandrigan@unionleader.com. .

House Republican Leader Hinch piled on, saying that this was a Democratic partisan stunt that failed.

“Republicans stuck together on the vote today to support one of the state’s greatest public servants,” Hinch said. “The office of Secretary of State is not for sale, and today’s vote demonstrated that a bipartisan majority of legislators rejected Van Ostern’s attempt to turn it into a political trophy.”

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Veteran observers remarked this was reminiscent of four years ago when former House Speaker Bill O’Brien, R-Mont Vernon, won his GOP caucus vote for speaker.

This was to be sweet redemption for O’Brien who had himself lost the speakership when the Democrats took back control of the House in 2012.

But O’Brien could only watch and wince. Despite the backing of his majority party, he lost on the House floor to fellow Republican Shawn Jasper, R-Hudson, who got a handful of GOP votes and all the Democrats.

“This felt like four years ago,” said Jasper, popping into the House gallery moments after Gardner wrapped it up. “Thank goodness for this result; it’s great for New Hampshire and for our primary.”

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The first job-change shoe to drop came in the House communications office, with Jim Rivers of Concord having his last day as the spokesman for the House Wednesday.

Taking over for now in that role is Eileen Kelly, the longtime aide in the House Democratic office, although someone else coming on as a permanent replacement looks to be in the cards.

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So what will become of all those reforms Van Ostern campaigned for?

“I hope the Legislature will take them up,” Van Ostern told reporters.

Van Ostern said he’s optimistic the more non-political ones will happen, such as the first significant audit of the Secretary of State’s office in a decade, better communication with local officials and modernization of the website and other ways the office deals with the public.

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Candidate for Secretary of State Colin Van Ostern walks the hallways while the votes were counted at the State House in Concord on Wednesday.

And Van Ostern said GOP lawmakers should abandon any further restrictions on access to voting.

“If we are going to have a non-partisan and non-political Secretary of State’s office, then we are going to have to see less controversies and more clarity and more protection of voting rights,” Van Ostern said.

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The group most responsible for Gardner’s near-loss, the New Hampshire Young Democrats, also emerged defiant.

As a bloc they went in overwhelming numbers to Van Ostern.

“Young people want to see our values reflected in New Hampshire elections,” said Executive Director Amelia Keane. “The rights of young voters have been under attack for more than a decade and we hope the Secretary of State’s office will work to protect and expand voting rights to all eligible voters in New Hampshire.

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As for his part, Gardner didn’t sound like someone ready to apologize for the past.

“I want to keep New Hampshire as the easiest state in the country to vote, as it has been; near the top of the states in the country as far as turnout, as it has been; and to keep New Hampshire’s primary where it has always been,” Gardner said.

Was this tight race a wake-up call, Gardner was asked.

“I don’t think this would have been the same had I campaigned for as long as he did,” said Gardner, who never called Van Ostern by name in public the entire day.

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Secretary of State Bill Gardner flashes a smile after he won the second vote to beat Colin Van Ostern at the State House in Concord on Wednesday.

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State Rep. Renny Cushing, D-Hampton, was one of the counters of those ballots.

“We counted them four times each time just to make sure,” Cushing said.

The ballots were cast in four boxes in the four corners of Representatives Hall and then brought to a single table to be tabulated.

“What was crazy was we would go through one box and it was tied, another box and Colin was up by one, another box and Bill was up by one, it went back and forth like that over and over,” Cushing said.

“I really can’t remember anything quite like it.”

Cushing would know something about history since he’s the leading House representative on the commission studying how to commemorate the bicentennial of the State House, which opened in 1819.

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State Rep. and longtime Manchester firefighter Jeff Goley gets a bigtime promotion with the new Democratic leadership in the House.

Goley is expected to become chairman of the House Executive Departments and Administration Committee, which handles all licensing bills and has one of the biggest loads of any policy committee.

“Now I’ll be able to schedule them to work with my schedule,” Goley said referring to the firehouse.

“There are going to be quite a few very long days.”

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Nashua Alderman-at-Large Lori Wilshire was chosen by her peers to replace as their leader the venerable Aldermanic president Brian McCarthy, who died suddenly last month.

Stepping up as vice president is Alderman-at-Large and state Rep. Mike O’Brien, D-Nashua.

What about replacing McCarthy’s seat on the board?

City officials have been told it will cost $35,000 to $40,000 to hold a special election before the next municipal election, which is in November 2019.

O’Brien said city officials are exploring whether the board can make a temporary change in the City Charter to appoint an interim board member to serve in McCarthy’s spot until a permanent person would be chosen in 11 months.

Former Nashua alderman Ben Clemons has already declared that he’ll campaign for that seat on the board when there is an election or an appointive race declared for it.

Nashua Democrats serving in the House wore celebratory stickers that simply read, “We send 27.”

In the midterm, city voters for the first time in modern history chose Democrats to fill every single seat Nashua has in the 400-person House.

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Planned Parenthood of Northern New England had opposed Dan St. Hilaire’s nomination to the New Hampshire Superior Court and served notice the group would be watching after he won confirmation, 3-2.

“His past actions on the Executive Council and his public statements about that vote show his personal bias clouded his judgment when voting on family planning contracts,” said Sabrina Dunlap, vice president of public policy.

“During the hearing on Monday, St. Hilaire promised to be a fair and impartial judge, and we hope that will be the case.”

klandrigan@unionleader.com