A polarizing presidential race, a blue midterm-election tidal wave and the falling dominoes of a duel for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination combine to give voters more choices than usual in the Sept. 8 primary.
Trailing in the polls, President Donald Trump needs New Hampshire’s four electoral votes even more than four years ago, when he came up just short of taking them from Hillary Clinton.
It’s little wonder why Trump chose the Granite State to launch his stretch run on Friday.
Just the night before, in his convention speech, Trump spoke of his push since 2016 to bring back “New Hampshire” jobs lost to China.
Meanwhile, the Republican National Committee has had staffers on the ground for months competing against a New Hampshire Democratic Party machine that has opened up a 3-1 cash advantage over its GOP counterpart.
Democratic Party gains across the board in 2018, with the notable exception of Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s reelection, have left the GOP hungry to seize back the levers of power.
Meanwhile, the Democrats’ unfinished business — retaking the corner office the party has held for 18 of the past 24 years — prompted two of its up-and-comers, Dan Feltes and Andru Volinsky, to leave their own safe seats for a shot at becoming New Hampshire’s 83rd governor.
As Democrats have emerged from 2018 as the majority party with the most registrations, their leaders hope this time to deliver a knockout blow to Trump and the rest of the Republican ticket.
Although there’s plenty of competition and import in the campaigns for governor and Congress, the down-ballot races will determine the outcome of public policy debates, as well as the fate of important appointments ranging from a local justice of the peace to the chief justice of the New Hampshire Supreme Court.
They also will determine which party controls the redrawing of election districts for the Legislature, Executive Council and both seats in the U.S. House of Representatives through 2030 using 2020 Census data.
So as many sit down at the kitchen table to fill out their absentee ballots, we have picked 15 significant races worth watching.
Four years ago, Republicans held a safe 4-1 majority on the council, essentially a state board of directors that meets every two weeks to approve all major contracts and judicial and political appointments.
Since Democrats took it back by a 3-2 margin in 2018, that majority has blocked Sununu’s nominations to the Supreme Court, state Board of Education and state licensing bureau.
As a result, all five districts have contested primaries, with the least competitive in northern New Hampshire, where former Councilor Joe Kenney of Wakefield is expected to easily defeat Kim Strathdee of Lincoln, as he did by a 4-1 margin in a 2018 primary. Councilor Michael Cryans, D-Hanover, awaits the inevitable rematch — the fifth time the two have squared off.
Cryans got his first win over Kenney in 2018.
District 2 (Open)
Democrats: Leah Plunkett, Concord; John D. Shea, Nelson; Emmett Soldati, Somersworth; Jay Surdukowski, Concord; Craig Thompson, Harrisville; Cinde Warmington, Concord
Republicans: Jim Beard, Lempster; Stewart Levenson, Hopkinton
A Democratic victory in the seat held by Volinsky, who is running for governor, is not guaranteed, though this district has been even more blue since redistricting in 2010.
Not coincidentally, that’s when the last Republican to hold it, former county prosecutor Dan St. Hilaire of Concord, left after a single term and became Sununu’s pick, first to be a state liquor administrator and last year a superior court judge.
A six-person Democratic scramble gives voters plenty of options, ranging chronologically from café owner Soldati, 32, to former Councilor and insurance executive Shea, 85.
In between are three Concord lawyers, all of whom have worked in political and legal trenches but are hardly in lockstep.
Surdukowski, 41, who worked as a lawyer for U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan and others, infuriated partisans last year for his leadership of a failed effort to make Attorney General Gordon J. MacDonald, a conservative Republican, the next chief justice.
A campaign finance reform advocate, Surdukowski has criticized Volinsky for blocking some of Sununu’s other appointments and for the council’s initial refusal to approve all state spending in protest of the governor’s taking control from the Legislature after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Surdukowski said the council’s proper role is to find consensus, even if it means upsetting political convention.
Warmington is a 62-year-old health care lawyer who works for the law firm led by Bill Shaheen, U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s husband. Warmington, who has chaired the party’s platform committee, said last May that Surdukowski’s views on the AG should disqualify him.
Then there’s Plunkett, a 41-year-old professor at the University of New Hampshire Law School who, when she was state chair of the Planned Parenthood of New Hampshire Action Fund, helped lead the opposition to MacDonald. Plunkett, who has been endorsed by the fund, has accused Surdkowski of “misogyny” for how he dismissed females who opposed MacDonald.
The son of a former mayor and congressional candidate, Soldati has built his Somerworth business, the Teatotaller, into a must-stop for political hopefuls. He wants to make the council more of a place to put issues such as education aid and the tax structure on the public’s agenda.
Shea took this seat in the Democratic sweeps of 2006 and 2008 and then lost it in the Tea Party purge two years later. He said he would devote more time to this role than the other hopefuls, who have day jobs.
The sixth candidate is Thompson, a first-term state representative, farmer and unabashed liberal who said he would be a crusader on climate change.
The two GOP candidates have to hope the Democratic primary becomes so bloody one of them can take advantage.
Levenson, 63, a physician, was one of the whistleblowers about substandard conditions at the Veterans Medical Center in Manchester. He ran for Congress in 2018, finishing second to GOP nominee Steve Negron of Nashua.
Beard, a 68-year retiree, said he would be an advocate for fiscally conservative policies.
District 3 (Open )
Democrats: Patricia Lovejoy, Stratham; Mindi Messmer, Rye
Republicans: Timothy Comerford, Fremont; Bruce Crochetiere, Hampton Falls; Janet Stevens, Rye
Republican Russ Prescott’s surprising decision last spring to retire has turned this race into a very competitive one in both parties. It’s the seat Sununu held before becoming governor, and by party registration, the most Republican one.
Running to replace him is Crochetiere, a self-made, wealthy businessman who toyed with a 2018 congressional run before backing out. He has both moderate Republican and Trump confidants on his team.
Stevens won over Ruth Griffin, the Portsmouth Republican icon who held this seat for 20 years.
The third hopeful is Comerford, a former state representative and a fiscal and social conservative activist.
The spirited Democratic primary features former environmental activist, 2018 congressional candidate and former state Rep. Messmer against five-term, Stratham Rep. Lovejoy.
(Incumbent: Ted Gatsas, R-Manchester)
Democrats: Kola Adewumi, Hooksett; Jerome Duval, Manchester; Mark S. Mackenzie, Manchester
Former Mayor and ex-Senate President Gatsas won this seat in 2018 after a failed bid for governor two years earlier.
He’s the clear favorite in the fall, but the seat has tipped Democratic in presidential election years, giving challengers a glimmer of hope for an upset.
Former AFL-CIO union president and Bernie Sanders delegate Mackenzie has the edge.
But real estate broker Duval is a known commodity who has won the endorsements of 2018 Democratic nominee Gray Chynoweth and Maureen Manning, who founded the state’s Women’s Bar Association.
Adewumi, 66, is a political newcomer.
(Incumbent: Debora Pignatelli, D-Nashua)
Republicans: Bob Clegg, Hudson; Dave Wheeler, Milford
Wheeler and Pignatelli have taken turns holding this seat, with Pignatelli winning their last faceoff in 2018.
Meanwhile, Clegg is a State House lobbyist and former Senate majority leader who frequently tangled with Wheeler. The two have led competing gun owner rights groups often at odds with each another.
Both Sununu and ex-U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte are backing Wheeler, and Clegg won over former Congressman and state Sen. Jeb Bradley.
State GOP leaders believe flipping this seat would improve Republicans’ hopes of regaining control.
Many of the seats in this 24-member body are safe ones for one party or the other.
That’s why incumbent retirements can trigger usually stiff competition in primaries, where winning can carry more weight.
The three Senate Democrats not seeking re-election — Martha Fuller Clark of Portsmouth, Martha Hennessey of Lebanon and Dan Feltes of Concord — hold three of the most Democratic seats.
Meanwhile a surprise Republican winner in 2018 faces a strong test.
Democrats hold a 14-10 edge in the Senate.
Republicans: Erin Hennessey, Littleton; David Starr (incumbent), Franconia
Two years ago, the little-known Starr upset former Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn of Whitefield after Woodburn was charged with domestic abuse of his ex-fiancée. The case is ongoing in Coos County Superior Court.
Sununu and partisans believe Republicans must hold onto this seat if they have any chance of regaining Senate control.
That’s why the governor has gotten behind Starr’s challenger, state Rep. Hennessey. Sununu put Hennessey, who sits on the House Finance Committee, on his COVID-19 legislative advisory board.
Democrats are bullish about a takeback here because their candidate is four-term state Rep. Susan Ford of Easton, who also is a House budget writer.
District 5 (Open)
Democrats: Beatriz Pastor, Lyme; Suzanne Prentiss, Lebanon
Martha Hennessey’s departure after three terms creates an interesting tussle in this district, which hugs the Connecticut River corridor from Charlestown to Hanover.
The incumbent got behind Pastor, a former four-term state representative and Dartmouth College professor.
Prentiss, a paramedic, is a former moderate Republican and Lebanon mayor who has won over Lebanon Councilor Karen Liot-Hill and the professional firefighters union.
The winner faces Charlestown Republican Timothy O’Hearne.
District 15 (Open)
Democrats: Candace Bouchard, Concord; Paul Hodes, Concord; Becky Whitley, Hopkinton
This is definitely the most competitive Senate primary in the entire state, with three candidates steeped in experience dealing with government.
Hodes, 69, is the best-known, having represented New Hampshire’s 2nd Congressional District for four years before losing a U.S. Senate race to Ayotte in 2010.
In his return to elective politics after a decade of consulting and legal work, he has all he can handle.
Bouchard, 66, is a local powerhouse of her own, with 16 years in leadership roles in the New Hampshire House and more than a decade on the Concord City Council.
Then there’s Whitley, 40, a State House fixture as staff lawyer with the Disabilities Rights Center. She also worked with Feltes to pass legislation that will create a comprehensive care system to treat troubled children at home rather than in residential placement or juvenile detention.
The winner faces Republican Linda Rae Banfill, who isn’t likely to fare much better in this race than in her two losing bids for the Concord mayor’s office in 2017 and 2019.
(Incumbent: Donna Soucy, D-Manchester)
Republicans: George Lambert, Litchfield; Ross Terrio, Manchester
Senate President Soucy is favored to win a fifth term in this district, which includes parts of Manchester and all of Litchfield.
For Republicans, this primary is about choosing someone who can keep Soucy focused on winning her own race rather than influencing Senate races across the state.
Both Terrio and Lambert are former House members who have lost to Soucy before. In 2018, Lambert received 44% of the vote against Soucy. In 2016, Terrio got 45%.
District 21 (Open)
Democrats: Rebecca Perkins-Kwoka, Portsmouth; Deaglan McEachern, Portsmouth
For 26 years, Fuller Clark represented her city in the Legislature, 14 of those as state senator. As the party’s vice chairman and Democratic National Committeewoman, she also played a big role in identifying and supporting other candidates. This adds weight to her endorsement of businesswoman and activist Perkins-Kowka.
But the party’s elite is not echoing the call.
Portsmouth City Councilor and 2018 congressional candidate McEachern has the backing of ex-House Speaker Terie Norelli, Bill Shaheen, ex-state Sen. Amanda Merrill of Durham, all of Durham’s House members and the unions representing the state employees and the National Education Association.
Portsmouth conservative activist Sue Polidura will face the winner.
(Incumbent: Tom Sherman, D-Rye)
Republicans: Regina Barnes, Hampton; Lou Gargiulo, Hampton Falls
Sherman, a Rye physician seeking a second term, is widely seen as one of his party’s rising stars.
But Republican leaders can recall that only years earlier, Sherman lost this race to Republican Dan Innis of New Castle. They believe a Trump victory in this district could tip the seat back to their column.
Gargiulo, a wealthy real estate developer, is in the Trump mold, having served as a 2016 convention delegate. He has Sununu on his side, too.
Barnes, a Hampton selectman, was endorsed by Reopen NH, the group that has pressed Sununu to relax restrictions imposed because of COVID-19.
Hillsborough County Attorney
(Incumbent: Michael Conlon, D-Goffstown)
Republicans: John Coughlin, Amherst; Dan Hynes, Bedford
When Attorney General Gordon MacDonald’s office took over day-to-day supervision of Conlon’s office, Republicans smelled blood.
This once-safe spot for Democrats has flipped back and forth four times in the 21st century.
Former County Attorney Coughlin stepped down as a circuit court judge last year to run again. Coughlin was prosecutor in 2003 for about a year before he was called up by the Army National Guard to serve in Iraq.
Bedford trial lawyer and ex-state Senate candidate Hynes is opposing him.
Merrimack County Sheriff (Open)
Democrats: David Croft, Salisbury; Michael Labrecque, Epsom; Keith Mitchell, Pembroke
Republicans: Dennis Crawford, Warner; James Valiquet, Newbury
Previous Sheriff Scott Hillard, a Republican, was a fixture in this post until a drunken driving arrest and conviction spurred his retirement last spring. In several elections, he ran opposed.
Now both parties have fielded law enforcement veterans.
The Democratic lineup includes Canterbury Police Chief Labrecque, Deputy Sheriff Mitchell and Boscawen Chief Croft.
Republicans will choose between Bradford Chief Valiquet and retired Deputy Sheriff Lt. Crawford.
Strafford County Sheriff (Open)
Democrats: Mark Brave, Dover; Brendan Drysdale, Durham; Tracy Hayes, Middleton; Anthony Macaione, Rochester
Republicans: Paul Callaghan, Rochester; Wayne Estes, Dover
All six candidates are current or former employees of the Strafford County Sheriff’s Office hoping to replace longtime Sheriff Dave Dubois, who is retiring.
Brave is a lieutenant in the office who worked for the Rochester and Lawrence, Mass., police departments. Drysdale retired in 2019 as a lieutenant after 29 years in law enforcement, including time with the Somersworth Police Department. Hayes, a major, is third in command of the department. Macaione is a former deputy who opposed Dubois in 2018.
Republicans will choose between Callaghan, the office lieutenant and prosecutor, and Estes, who previously held the job and is now a part-time deputy.
Rockingham County Sheriff
(Incumbent: Chuck Massahos, R-Salem)
Republicans: Kevin Coyle, Portsmouth; Chuck Massahos, Salem
This is an intramural fight, with Coyle leaving his post as Rockingham County commissioner to challenge Massahos’ reelection bid.
Coyle was unable to run again for his commission post after moving from Derry out of his district to Portsmouth.
The winner faces Democrat Patrick Rivard, of Chester.
Hillsborough District 36
(Three seats, Nashua Ward 9)
Republicans: Tyler Gouveia; Paula Desjardins Moran; Bill O’Brien; Bill Ohm
What makes the race in this new district in south Nashua interesting is former House Speaker Bill O’Brien, who is trying to return to the House after a four-year hiatus and a move to Nashua from Mont Vernon.
To get to November, O’Brien has to beat at least one of his three primary opponents, all of whom have some history there.
Ohm is a former House member, Desjardins Moran is a longtime BAE Systems employee, and Gouveia is a small-business owner.
The three Democratic incumbents are each seeking reelection.