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In Governor's Race, Yearslong State House Fights Frame Today's Campaign Debate

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Josh Rogers, Todd Bookman
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Gov. Chris Sununu and his Democratic challenger in the 2020 election, Democrat Dan Feltes

The race for governor between incumbent Republican Chris Sununu and Democrat Dan Feltes pits two candidates who have big policy differences on taxes, the economy, energy and much else.

While such differences are expected in a general election for governor, this year's race stands out because of how familiar the two candidates are with each other. 

NHPR's Josh Rogers spoke with All Things Considered host Peter Biello to talk about how yearslong State House fights are shaping the campaign trail debate today.

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Peter Biello: So, as state Senate majority leader, Dan Feltes’s job has been to push Democratic policy goals through the Legislature over the past few years. As governor, Chris Sununu has vetoed 79 bills, the most in New Hampshire history, and many of which were ones where Feltes was basically the point person. How much of the friction that we see between Feltes and Sununu on the campaign trail these days is simply about that?

Josh Rogers: It certainly plays a role. Democrats have tried to frame the last two years as being about Sununu blocking policies they believe reflect the public’s will, be it instituting a mandatory paid leave plan, lifting the state minimum wage, campaign finance measures, and bills surrounding net metering for solar-generated electricity. These are core issues for Democrats, and many have been for years. Democrats hold majorities in the Legislature that allow bills they back to make it to Sununu’s desk, but not the numbers needed to override if Republicans support the governor. So, what we’ve seen is lots of gridlock on Democratic priorities. And Dan Feltes has basically built his campaign on such issues, including the assumption that there would be vetoes by Sununu. Here’s Feltes last week on the day lawmakers gathered to take override votes.

Feltes: “Sununu has said raising the minimum wage would be 'dumb' and 'disastrous.' Just like when he called paid family leave a 'vacation,' not once not twice but three different times. Sununu can’t help but insult hard-working Granite Staters at every turn.”

Biello: That was Dan Feltes last week, on the day that lawmakers failed to override any of Gov. Sununu’s most recent round of vetoes. So, Democrats and Feltes have been pretty transparent about the case they would make against Sununu.

Rogers: Absolutely. Stark policy differences, and the persistent allegation that Sununu is out of touch by virtue of being from a prominent political family. And also lots of efforts to yoke him to President Trump. In all cases, Feltes’ role as one of the leading Democrat in the State House has given him plenty of opportunities to try out that case, well before he even won the nomination for governor.

Biello: What about Sununu, and the case he’s making?

Rogers: Well, he’s playing up the advantages of incumbency; operating the state under emergency powers that limit lawmakers’ role during the COVID pandemic has made that easier. And when it comes to facing Feltes in particular, Sununu has also known what to expect for a long time, because he’s been getting it already - whether in speeches by Feltes from the Senate floor, or Democratic press conferences - over the past two years. But as we’ve hit the general election, we’ve heard from Sununu two things: the persistent observation that Feltes' professional background means he lacks executive experience, like here:

Sununu: “Dan Feltes has no management experience in his entire career none, but he’s going to come in and manage the biggest crisis the state has ever had, the biggest economic responsibilities we’ve ever had.”

Rogers: That was Sununu on WMUR recently. And we’ve also seen Sununu zero in on a few details of some of Feltes’ signature bills. Let’s listen to him making his recurrent argument that Feltes’ paid leave plan is an income tax.

Sununu: “Dan Feltes wrote the bill that actually says, ‘Payments shall equal, 0.5 %of wages for each employee.’ Those are his words not mine. I vetoed that.”

Biello: So a double-barreled line of attack from Sununu.

Rogers: Yes. And there’s no reason to expect it won’t continue. One thing to watch over the final month of this campaign is how much of it gets waged on policy out of the State House, which is really the substance of Feltes’ pitch, and how much of it is about leading the state in broader terms, which is more Sununu’s campaign MO - all the more so in light of the current pandemic and economic impact.

Biello: Either way, you would contend that both Sununu and Feltes know each other and each other’s records pretty well?

Rogers: In terms of policy detail, these guys know each other very well, probably better than any two general election candidates in decades. They’ve been going through the same lines of attack against each other, really for years already. And neither is likely to break that habit before we hit Election Day.

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Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.

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