By Kevin Landrigan

When Gov. Maggie Hassan announced last fall she would be leaving the corner office after two terms to run for the U.S. Senate, the assumption among most party leaders was this would turn into a battle at the Executive Council table.

Two members of the state's political board of directors, who both joined the council in 2013, are squaring off -- Newfields Republican Chris Sununu versus Concord Democrat Colin Van Ostern.

"From the very beginning, this is who we thought would be facing one another; it's no surprise really," said Greg Moore, state director of the fiscally conservative Americans for Prosperity.

But Sununu, 41, barely made it. He won by less than 1 percent over little-known, one-term state Rep. Frank Edelblut, R-Wilton, who used his personal fortune and a positive, conservative message to pull off a near-stunning upset.

Sununu, for one, came away very impressed as well as relieved.

"Frank was a great candidate. He got in early, he ran a great ground game. He really stuck true to his message, he didn't get bogged down in the weeds in a lot of the negativity, and that appealed to a lot of folks, and rightly so," Sununu said.

Van Ostern, 37, got to this point via a different route, winning overwhelmingly over his two primary rivals, ex-securities regulation director Mark Connolly of New Castle and former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand.

"Colin has been a very disciplined candidate with a strong message who built a very impressive organization," said Senate Democratic Leader Jeff Woodburn, who endorsed Van Ostern late in the primary campaign.

The Executive Council table is usually not a place that offers voters plenty of contrasts on key issues.

The five-member council meets every other week to vote on hundreds of state contracts and dozens of political appointments to full-time state jobs and seats on state boards and commissions.

Much of that work is non-partisan and without dispute; most contracts are approved on a voice vote.

But there have been some key disagreements that will shape this fall campaign.

Both candidates are pro-choice on abortion, though state contracts for Planned Parenthood have become a dividing line.

Sununu angered those in the pro-choice community in 2015 when he voted against state contracts for the five Planned Parenthood clinics in the state.

Van Ostern decided to make this his first issue in the fall campaign, visiting the Portsmouth clinic to have a discussion on reproductive rights.

"There is very clear contrast between someone who is supporting women's health 100 percent of the time and someone who voted successfully to shut off funding," Van Ostern said. "The truth is over the course of last year, fewer women got birth control, cancer screenings and annual exams at our state Planned Parenthood centers. That made our state weaker. It was the wrong direction for New Hampshire."

While Sununu voted against the Planned Parenthood contract in 2015, he voted in favor of a similar contract last spring to provide family planning services, which includes access to contraception, STD testing, cancer screenings and counseling.

Sununu has called it one of the most difficult votes of his time on the council, and said there were no other health providers willing to perform this contract other than Planned Parenthood.

Medicaid friction

The expansion of Medicaid coverage allowed under Obamacare is another source of friction between these two. Van Ostern championed the idea on the council; Sununu voted against it.

"If Chris Sununu had been successful in killing Medicaid, New Hampshire would be without its best tool for combating the opioid epidemic," said New Hampshire Democratic Party press secretary Evan Lukaske. "Now he has to own that record."

Sununu said he wanted the state expansion to have a work requirement attached to it -- something the Republican-led Legislature ultimately refused to adopt.

But Sununu has not said if elected he would repeal the program, and in fact has suggested he'd work to amend rather than do away with it.

Commuter rail

A third council cause that split these two was whether to bring back commuter rail traffic to southern New Hampshire. It was eliminated due to a lack of federal grant support during the Reagan administration in the early 1980s.

Van Ostern voted for the state to accept federal money to do the final study of the project and believes bringing commuter trains back to the state could be a real economic boon.

"There is no question it will help businesses grow, help commercial development," Van Ostern said.

But Sununu has said the state can't afford the operating cost to run the train. He questions its very purpose.

"A $300 million train that's going to help a couple thousand people get to their jobs in Boston; that doesn't make any sense to anybody, I don't believe," Sununu said.

(c)2016 The New Hampshire Union Leader (Manchester, N.H.)