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Lawmakers Face Mounting Pressure From Both Sides of Secretary of State Race

Dan Tuohy / NHPR

The newly elected class of New Hampshire legislators barely had time to take a victory lap in their own races earlier this month before they started fielding messages about another campaign — this time, for the Secretary of State. 


“I’ve got calls, I’ve got letters, I’ve got emails — mostly all positive,” Rep. Jim MacKay, of Concord, remarked on his way into the first post-election House Democratic Caucus. 

An email from Colin Van Ostern to lawmakers.
An email from Gardner to lawmakers.

MacKay has been in the New Hampshire House for nearly two decades, so he goes way back with Secretary of State Bill Gardner, the 42-year incumbent who’s facing his most serious challenger to date. But that challenger, former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern, is also one of MacKay’s constituents — so he’s been on the fence about who to support.

“It’s one of those things where you probably don’t know what you’re going to do,” MacKay said. “I’ve known Bill for years, and I’ve known Colin for years. They’re both competent, and I’ve been talking to both.”

New Hampshire is one of three states where legislators choose the chief election official, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. MacKay and other undecided lawmakers have until Dec. 5 — the day when all 400 state representatives and 24 state senators will vote on the position — to make up their mind. 

And in the meantime, they’re getting plenty of unsolicited advice about how to vote. 

Emails have poured in from former House Speaker Terie Norelli (a Van Ostern supporter), former Portsmouth Lawmaker Jim Splaine (a longtime friend of Gardner) and a host of other allies on both sides of the race.

Former Governor John Lynch even made a surprise appearance at the State House to address the House Democratic Caucus on Gardner’s behalf. Gardner swears he didn’t arrange for that. 

“Governor Lynch actually asked me to come to this,” Gardner told reporters the day Lynch showed up at the caucus. “I didn’t ask him to come to this.”

An excerpt of an email from former Rep. Jim Splaine to state lawmakers, encouraging them to support Gardner.

Until recently, Gardner has held back on publicly rebutting to most of Van Ostern’s critiques, but others haven’t hesitated to fight back for him. Secretary of State employees have written columns in local newspapers, often in response to ones by Van Ostern and his supporters, defending Gardner’s reputation and record. Friends from both political parties have also come to Gardner’s defense, writing their own columns, Facebook posts, tweets and emails about why he should keep his job. 

  Both Gardner and Van Ostern are Democrats, but top Republicans haven’t been shy about expectations that their caucus should unite behind Gardner.  Steve Stepanek, a former state legislator and Trump campaign co-chair who's running to lead the state party, even brought it up at his own campaign launch.

“This will be the only time that you’ll ever hear me endorsing a Democrat: Bill Gardner is the guardian of the New Hampshire first-in-the-nation primary,” he said. 

While Gardner has downplayed any notion of campaigning until his duties overseeing this year’s elections were over, Van Ostern — who cut his teeth in New Hampshire politics as a young campaign operative — has been publicly organizing supporters for months. 

“We hosted dozens of forums across the state about voting rights and civic engagement,” Van Ostern said. “And we had hundreds of legislative candidates, including representatives of all parties, attend those.”

The approach seems more tailored to a campaign for governor or Congress than for New Hampshire Secretary of State. Van Ostern has a political action committee that’s raised nearly a quarter of a million dollars to pay for staffers, consultants and other campaign activities. Most recently, that group’s started organizing phone banksencouraging people to reach out to their reps and remind them how important the vote for Secretary of State is.

Van Ostern’s also had plenty of help within the legislature, too, from folks like Hillsborough Rep. Marjorie Porter, who spent the morning of the House Democratic Caucus handing out small blue fliers promoting his campaign.

These cards were distributed to lawmakers ahead of the House Democratic Caucus, courtesy of the Van Ostern campaign.

“It’s information about things that Colin has done and where his standing is,” Porter explained, “and it’s just information for folks who might not know.”

There’s been a lot of turnover in the Legislature this year, and Gardner knows that folks might not know him well, either. So he also sent a congratulatory email to new lawmakers four days after the election, as well as a follow-up email sent Nov. 21, the day after this year's final recount concluded.

“Since the filing period for candidates in June, I have been totally focused on the most important aspect of my constitutional duty as Secretary of State,” the latest email read. “Working alongside local election officials we worked to ensure a fair and honest election. Now I am turning my attention to seeking another term as Secretary of State. In doing so, I am asking for your vote when the General Court organizes on Wednesday, December 5th.”

Both emails included Gardner’s personal cellphone number and an open invitation to give him a call or stop by his office if they want to chat, share concerns or hear his response to the "misinformation" they might have been hearing these last few months.

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