While it’s been in the background for more than a year, the race to replace New Hampshire’s longest-serving election official in the country faces a major test of wills today.
And how this chapter goes down could well determine whether former executive councilor and 2016 nominee for governor Colin Van Ostern can pull off the unseating of 42-year incumbent Secretary of State Bill Gardner.
But Gardner maintains a little-noticed 1997 state law should block those on Van Ostern’s side who want to give the challenger a big dose of momentum by having the House Democratic caucus weigh in today on the contest.
“There hasn’t been a caucus for this office since that law was passed,” Gardner said during an interview. “The intent of that law seemed clear, which was to take party politics out of this office and the state treasurer.”
Everyone agrees the ultimate call will be decided by the entire elected Legislature when it meets to organize on Dec. 5.
If the 234 elected House Democrats recommended Gardner’s ouster, it would be an outcome Gardner would have some difficulty overturning next month.
As we know, Van Ostern got into this race only after a lot of prominent Democrats — including the entire congressional delegation — attacked Gardner for agreeing to serve on President Trump’s ill-fated voter integrity commission.
A Manchester Democrat, Gardner has come under assault from Van Ostern and others who charge he played too nice with Republican legislative leaders as they tightened the definition of domicile for voting.
Gardner supporters like former state senator Jim Splaine of Portsmouth maintain Gardner made sure the state law allowed anyone to keep coming to the polls with the right to vote, whether they had an ID or a New Hampshire apartment rent lease on their person.
Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said it’s up to House Democrats to set rules for their own meeting.
“That is up to the caucus. They can amend the rules by majority vote to all for a vote of recommendation,” Buckley said.
“I have not been told who/if that motion will be made.”
Meanwhile the only talk right now is having a Secretary of State recommendation come from the caucus.
There had been no talk of having a similar recommendation on either state treasurer or the House clerk.
To this point, there are no declared challengers to those two other incumbents.
The Status reviewed the legislative history in 1997 when then-House Majority Leader Ann Torr, R-Dover, told committees the GOP leaders wanted this change out of frustration.
GOP leaders became weary of having to change their caucus rules every two years before the group could endorse Democrat Gardner, as they did in 1996 when he was opposed by Republican Mike Steere III.
“I firmly believe that regardless of party our constitutional officers — the Secretary of State and the state treasurer — should be elected by us by reason of their qualifications and not by their party,” Torr testified.
A co-sponsor for that bill was then-House Minority Leader and ex-state senator Peter Burling, now a prominent supporter of Van Ostern’s bid for secretary of state.
“I am pleased and honored to be a co-sponsor with Representative Torr of this truly wonderful idea,” Burling said at the time.
Van Ostern’s team maintains there hasn’t been a caucus vote since 1996 because Gardner hasn’t been opposed by a Democrat since then.
Gardner said there have been candidates hoping to run against him in the past 22 years who fizzled for lack of a seconding nomination.
Jay Surdukowski, a Concord lawyer with plenty of constitutional/campaign finance law experience, authored a lengthy memo that defends the caucus being able to make this call if the members choose and refers to the 1997 law change to the governing statute.
“Even so, RSA 14:2-b does not bar candidates from being nominated by party caucuses, nor could a statute do so given the constitutional guidance,” Surdukowski wrote.
“Even in light of RSA 14:2-b, there is a lack of guidance as to how the election process is to be conducted.”
Translation of this analysis: the party caucus membership can decide how or whether it will make a recommendation on Secretary of State.
Finally there could still be some peril, even if Van Ostern gets the caucus nod.
You have then told Gardner how many votes he needs to change or add to between today and Dec. 5.
This reminds one about what Ralph Waldo Emerson said about coup attempts.
“When you strike at a king, you must kill him,” Emerson wrote.
Van Ostern did pick up a symbolic but important endorsement on the eve of this showdown.
Steve Angelo was the Democratic candidate for state representative whose name wasn’t properly printed on 91 absentee ballots sent to voters.
The five Republican nominees for the seat representing Auburn, Chester and Sandown won the seats, and Angelo finished well out of the money.
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“Despite being left off of the ballot completely in absentee ballots printed for three towns, I never heard from the Secretary of State about this error. To this day, I do not know how many of the 91 misprinted ballots sent to voters were counted, how many of the voters instead used the corrected ballots that were sent to them later, and how many returned neither ballot out of confusion,” Angelo said.
“It was frustrating and troubling when the Secretary of State’s office described this error as ‘routine,’ and I was upset that they tried to shift the blame first to local town clerks, even though they misprinted ballots for 5 different towns in New Hampshire.”
One thing we do know about the 2018 election was there seemed to be another surprise right after it looked like conventional wisdom would prevail.
With that disclaimer, we believe House Democratic Leader Steve Shurtleff of Penacook will wrap up his caucus’ nomination for speaker and House Majority Leader Dick Hinch of Merrimack will stay on as the top Republican.
In the wake of the election, Gov. Chris Sununu wants most of all from this choice a House GOP leader who can keep the minority group together to sustain any veto he casts of legislation passed by the Democratically-led Legislature.
The other two potential GOP rivals, Londonderry Republican Rep. Al Baldasaro and Goffstown Republican Rep. Barbara Griffin probably would do a better job firing up the base.
But Hinch has already proven himself able to negotiate well with Democrats when the GOP didn’t have the votes.
The House Speaker fight in the Democratic caucus is harder to call, even though Shurtleff can lay claim that it’s his turn after just having won an eighth term.
A year ago, Hampton Democratic Rep. Renny Cushing had been critical of Shurtleff on transparency issues, but the two pledge to come together behind whoever wins.
For Cushing this race is a no-brainer. Shurtleff has already vowed to make Cushing part of his leadership team if he wins.
By making this move, Cushing creates a political base for himself going forward — no matter what happens.
Most of the commentary on social media from Democrats concluded this was a friendly fight.
“Competing good candidates only enhance our party,” posted longtime Democratic activist Joe Diament.
“As a proud Democrat I can comfortably say that whoever wins this race will have my admiration and best wishes.”
The Ballot Law Commission on Nov. 26 will meet to consider the challenge to the residency of state Sen.-Elect Jon Morgan of Brentwood.
Conservative activist Susan Olsen brought the complaint, maintaining that Morgan’s own timeline during the campaign had him coming into the state just under the required seven-year residency.
Morgan maintains the review will confirm his eligibility.
Last week, defeated state Sen. Bill Gannon, R-Sandown, submitted his own arguments that backed Olsen’s challenge.
Today, Gardner’s staff will recount all the ballots in this tight one that Morgan won, thanks to swamping the incumbent in Exeter.
The third candidate in this race for Secretary of State, former Manchester Democratic lawmaker Peter Sullivan, said he’s staying out of the party infighting.
“I have decided not to actively seek the nomination of either the Democratic or Republican caucus,” Sullivan said Wednesday afternoon.
“The Secretary of State must be a step removed from the partisan fray. When a candidate for the office runs as the endorsed candidate of a particular party, it raises, at a minimum, the appearance of bias or the potential for favoritism. The Secretary of State must avoid even the appearance of potential impropriety as he or she conducts recounts, administers campaign finance regulations, and resolves disputes concerning ballot access.”
While some media outlets were breathlessly reporting late-breaking polls showing the New Hampshire governor’s race to be a dead heat, the Democratic Governors Association (DGA) apparently was seeing a different race unfold.
Through its Live Free or Die PAC, the competitor, Republican Governors Association, was burning through all $964,000 it had funneled into the state on attack ads against Democratic nominee Molly Kelly of Harrisville.
The DGA? On Oct. 30, one week before the election, the state PAC in New Hampshire had a balance of $115,862 in its account.
On that day DGA NH sent all of it back to the DGA parent, no doubt so that it could be invested elsewhere.
You can’t argue with the call. Kelly ran respectably, but lost with 46 percent of the vote.
On the same night the DGA nationally picked off seven corner offices in other states from Republicans who had held them.
It’s hardly the upheaval happening in Florida and other states, but a recount revealed a vote-counting hiccup in the old House district of former House Speaker Bill O’Brien, a Mont Vernon Republican.
On Election Night, New Boston Republican R. Griffin Dickey was declared the winner of the second of two seats in the district that includes New Boston and Mont Vernon.
After the votes were recounted, Democrat Donna Mombourquette of New Boston had turned the tables and taken that spot.
Mombourquette had lost initially by 24 votes, but after the recount she led Dickey by eight.
The seismic nature of Democratic victories can be seen in the 67 seats they flipped in the New Hampshire House.
Since the majority has changed in this chamber four times in the last five elections, one shouldn’t assume any of this will be lasting past 2020.
But McKenzie St. Germain, House caucus director, points out that the Democrats took back seats in 31 districts that President Trump won in 2016; they took over 36 seats in districts Clinton had won.
Among this subset, the Democrats broke through for 25 seats they had not held since the redistricting of the House in 2011.
They turned seats in all 10 counties (only one each in Belknap and Coos) with the most coming in Hillsborough County (29) followed by Rockingham and Grafton Counties (8 apiece.)
Three House Democratic incumbents did lose on Nov. 6 — one in Laconia and two in Sullivan County.
For the fourth straight time, Kelly’s campaign managed to raise more dollars than Sununu did in the final reporting period.
All told, Sununu retained the clear edge, raising $1.65 million to Kelly’s $1.29 million.
Many political observers believe you learn a lot in a campaign from late money, because those donors know they won’t be revealed until after the election outcome.
Over the final 48 hours of the race, Sununu raised much more than Kelly did from large donors — $14,000 to $6,000.
Some of those big checks for Sununu came from LA-based hedge fund company Oakmont Corp. ($1,000), golf course owner David Friel of Hudson and his company ($2,000), Concord developer Ray D’Amante and his wife ($2,000) and Northeast Rehab Hospital ($1,000).
The late givers to Kelly included the LA Women’s Giving Collective PAC ($1,000), the Onward Together organization of 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Philadelphia investor Richard Vague.
U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-NH, said the Environmental Protection Agency needs to do more now that it has released draft assessments for chemical compounds in the class of PFAS that the EPA said could create health issues.
“These assessments are a step forward in helping to get answers for Granite Staters and Americans who have been exposed to PFAS contamination in their drinking water and have rightly been asking about any potential health risks such exposure may cause,” Hassan began.
“However, the EPA must do far more to assess and limit exposure to these contaminants that are emerging in drinking water throughout New Hampshire.”