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What Are The Differences Between The Two Democrats Running For N.H. Governor?

Josh Rogers for NHPR
Steve Marchand and Molly Kelly talk to potential voters at campaign events

State Democrats are gearing up to try do something they haven’t had to do in 14 years: reclaim the governor’s office from an incumbent Republican.

But before they get to the general election, the Democrats will have to select a nominee, a choice between former state senator Molly Kelly and former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand.

Joining Rick Ganley to discuss that race is NHPR’s Josh Rogers. 

Note: Transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Ok Josh, Molly Kelly and Steve Marchand are both making their candidacies official today, so this is officially day one. But in some way the contours of this primary are already pretty clear.

Well, one contour is very clear, that the Democratic establishment, from U.S. Senators Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan to congresswoman Annie Kuster, to the state’s biggest teachers union, to the top Democrats in the NH House and Senate - they have already all thrown in with Molly Kelly, who’s been involved in Democratic party politics for years, first as campaign worker and ultimately as a five-term senator out of Keene. I attended a Molly Kelly fundraiser this week, and she emphasized those affinities.

“I’ve had some wonderful endorsements in the last few weeks, and I’m proud of those and honored by that. And when you work close together with each other you get to know each other pretty well, don’t you. And they believe, and I do too, that my experience in the senate and my life experience will make me a very effective governor.”

How else does Kelly pitch herself?

Well she talks about the need for an educated workforce – for a time she was chair of the senate education committee, and she’s also stressing her personal biography. Her campaign is also really working to make sure people know that she was once a single mother who worked multiple jobs to come up with the money to attend college and law school. Her relative hand-to-mouth roots are an obvious counterpoint to Governor Chris Sununu, son of a governor, brother of a U.S. Senator.

So that’s how Kelly is introducing herself to the vast majority of people in New Hampshire who have no idea who she is, but from insiders who have been so quick to back her, and message seems to be she is one of us.

That’s absolutely the case -  absolutely. I’m not sure top Democrats necessarily see her as possessing the political skill or ambition of say, Jeanne Shaheen or Maggie Hassan, but they are absolutely convinced she’s a plausible and palatable person to top the Democratic ticket.

And you know this fundraiser of hers I attended wasn’t big and was in Concord, but a decent slug of the crowd – maybe a 5th – were people who’d held jobs, sometimes key jobs, in the administrations of Jeanne Shaheen, John Lynch and Maggie Hassan. T

he fact Molly Kelly is a woman should not be overlooked as part of her political appeal. One political strategist at the fundraiser told me as far as she’s concerned, Democrats should make it a prerequisite for all Democratic candidates to be women. She was joking - sort of - but also speaking to the logic that female candidates, and maybe particularly in the age of Donald Trump, could help the party mobilize voters, raise national money and can drive certain issues – paid family leave, anything that touches abortion, in ways male candidates may not be able to.

And, you know, if you look back to 2016, the only top election Democrats lost in New Hampshire was for governor, the only big race where the party nominee was a guy.

Now, Steve Marchand was in that race for governor. He came in a fairly distant second in the primary to the losing Democrat you mentioned, Colin Van Ostern. But despite that result, Marchand decided to give it another try pretty quickly.

Yes. He declared a year ago last April which was very early. And ever since he’s been holding house arties to very little fanfare. I attended one last week in Sanbornton. He drew about 25 people to a barn in the woods midweek.

He says the long slog is what it will take to do what has been historically quite rare, unseating an incumbent after a single term. Marchard is talking up his biography, son of immigrants from Quebec, and dropping a little French, but he’s also focusing also says he will campaign on policy and have details at the ready for voters to inspect on a range of issues.

I know its early but is his pitch it discernably longer on details more than Kelly?

It is early, but Marchand, whose professional background is as a government auditor, comes from a far wonkier place than Molly Kelly does, with an ideological bent that’s far harder to peg than Kelly’s. I mean, he’s made much of his having supported for Bernie Sanders in 2016 but he also once ran New Hampshire’s chapter of the debt and deficit watchdog, the Concord Coalition.

Back in 2002, when I first encountered him, he was the press secretary for gubernatorial candidate Mark Fernald, a liberal who ran on an income tax. He’s more recently worked affiliated himself with the more centrist No Labels political group.

But one through-line with him is an emphasis on policy. When I saw him in Sanbornton he was ready with detail on his plan to publically finance elections, a seven point proposal on guns issues. And he told a room full of liberals he sees policy as a way to reach Republicans. 

“Most of your Republican friends, most of them, are not antigovernment. They are not haters. What they are afraid of is inefficient, non-data-driven, non-outcome oriented government. We have to in the work we do demonstrate, exude competence, we have to exude the ability to take a dollar and attach it to the things that matter most. And when we do that we rebuild confidence, and that allows us to have conversation we haven’t had since Mel Thomson was governor.”

Steve Marchand invoked Mel Thomson, so I’ve got to assume he was talking the anti-tax pledge to oppose broad-based sales of income tax.

He was.

So before you go, where are Molly Kelly and Steve Marchand on this?

Well Molly Kelly has promised to oppose a sales or income tax, Steve Marchand says he isn’t proposing either, but isn’t taking the pledge. 

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
For many radio listeners throughout New Hampshire, Rick Ganley is the first voice they hear each weekday morning, bringing them up to speed on news developments overnight and starting their day off with the latest information.
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