The Week in Politics: New Hampshire's Unpredictable Governor's Race, a Mayor in Trouble and More

The most important election news and political dynamics at the state and local levels.
by | September 9, 2016

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.

Race for New Hampshire Governor Remains Unpredictable

No one knows who will win the New Hampshire governor's race this year. No one is even certain who the nominees will be.

A total of five Republicans and five Democrats are running in next Tuesday's state primary -- which, along with Delaware's, is the last primary before the general election. The incumbent governor, Democrat Maggie Hassan, is running for the U.S. Senate.

On the Republican side, Chris Sununu has the broadest name recognition. The resort owner and member of the state executive council is the son of a former governor and the brother of a former U.S. senator.

But Sununu is being attacked by his opponents who allege that he's insufficiently loyal to conservative causes, such as defunding Planned Parenthood. Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, one of his GOP challengers, released an ad last week accusing Sununu of embracing President Obama's "liberal Common Core agenda" because he failed to fight Hassan appointees who support the education standards. Sununu maintains that he's against Common Core and favors local control of schools. 

Sununu and Gatsas have been ahead in the polls and fundraising. But Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Research Center, said it would be a mistake to rule out state Sen. Jeanie Forrester, who has the endorsement of the Manchester Union-Leader, or state Rep. Frank Edelblut, who has performed well in debates.

Turnout will likely be in the 15 to 20 percent range, meaning advantages such as name recognition and advertising might not matter as much as usual, suggested Smith.

"With turnout so low, you're really down to the activists," said Smith. "It will come down to campaign organization -- which campaigns have identified their voters and how they're going to turn them out."

On the Democratic side, Colin Van Ostern, another member of the executive council, appears to have an edge over former Deputy Secretary of State Mark Connolly and former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand.

Van Ostern leads in fundraising and has gotten more endorsements from state lawmakers and labor unions. He led a recent poll by a double-digit margin, but there were many undecided voters.

Early polling of a possible Sununu-Van Ostern matchup showed Sununu leading. Most voters, however, haven't been tuned into the race. They will get a quick education on the candidates during the sprint to November, said Smith, the pollster.

Despite the indications from early polls, Democrats are hopeful that conditions in New Hampshire will be favorable to their candidate. Hassan has had a slight polling lead against incumbent GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte, while Hillary Clinton is ahead in the presidential race.

"The two states where the federal race is most soaked into the governor's race are North Carolina and New Hampshire," said Jared Leopold, spokesman for the Democratic Governors Association.

An Incumbent Mayor in Serious Political Trouble

Most incumbent mayors win re-election. Occasionally, some do get defeated. But few have looked as vulnerable as Dennis P. Williams, the mayor of Wilmington, Del.

Williams faces a total of eight challengers in next Tuesday's primary, including several current and former members of the City Council and state Sen. Bob Marshall. The winner of the Democratic primary is expected to be a lock to win in November.

The fact that so many candidates decided to challenge Williams is itself a sign of his vulnerability.

A poll conducted in July showed Williams running third, garnering just 13 percent of support from respondents. He trailed former Councilman Kevin Kelley and Mike Purzycki, the former director of the Riverfront Development Corp.

"It's really unusual, even in a crowded field, for the incumbent to be at 13 percent," said Paul Brewer, research director of the Center for Political Communication at the University of Delaware, which conducted the poll.

Fundraising has been no brighter for the mayor. Campaign finance reports filed last month show that Williams had raised less than one-tenth as much money as Purzycki.

Four years ago, Williams barely came out on top of a fractured field. Once in office, he immediately came into conflict with the City Council over the budget and other issues. He recently suffered a vote of no confidence from the police officers' union. Violent crime is a longstanding concern in Wilmington, but it hasn't notably improved on Williams' watch.

"He hasn't been too successful at the retail politics you need to be successful in a place like Wilmington," said Brewer. "I've heard from several different people that he doesn't really have much of a presence in the city."

The fact that so many high-profile candidates were willing to take him on is a big clue that they smelled blood in the water. But there are indeed so many of them that it's conceivable that Williams could still come out on top with a small plurality.

"I would never say he doesn't have any chance," said Samuel Hoff, a political scientist at Delaware State University. "But the level of scrutiny and criticism gives me the impression he is vulnerable."

Odds and Ends

Few Contests in the Bay State: Massachusetts held its state primaries on Thursday, which mostly amounted to one big snoozefest. It doesn't appear that the Democratic supermajority in either legislative chamber is going to be challenged seriously this year. More than half the incumbents, in fact, will be re-elected having faced no opposition either in the primary or in November.

Nevertheless, two Democratic state representatives were unseated by more progressive challengers. Tim Toomey, who has served in the state House for 24 years, was defeated by Mike Connolly, an attorney who had the backing of several liberal organizations including Our Revolution, a group that spun out of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign. Three-term incumbent Marcos Devers lost his seat to Juanita Mathis, a former social worker who is now an executive at a construction company.

Shakeup in St. Louis: Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon replaced the chair and the secretary of the St. Louis Election Board on Monday. The shakeup followed a judge's ruling that found irregularities in an August primary for the state House and ordered a new election. "The board was not doing its job," said Nixon.

District Attorney Steps Down: Susan Hawk, the district attorney of Dallas County, Texas, announced her resignation on Tuesday, citing mental health concerns. Hawk, who took office last year, had been hospitalized three times during her short tenure for depression.

Want to read this regularly? Subscribe to "The Week in Politics" newsletter for free.