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Why One Executive Council Primary Race Is So Crowded And Competitive

N.H. State House
Allegra Boverman for NHPR

Several high profile races are on the New Hampshire primary ballot next week, including for governor and the Senate seat held by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. But one of the most crowded and competitive primary races this year is quite a bit further down the ballot: the Democratic contest to represent District 2 on the state's Executive Council.

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NHPR's Morning Edition Host spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about the race and what it says about the changing role the council is playing in New Hampshire politics.

Rick Ganley: So six Democrats are running to fill the vacancy left by Andru Volinsky's decision to run for governor. Before we get to the candidates, can you tell me about the district itself?

Josh Rogers: Well, District 2 winds west to east and includes Keene, the Monadnock region, Concord and Dover. You know, all those areas are among the most reliably Democratic places in New Hampshire. And so given that it's hard at this point, if not impossible, for a Republican to win there. And, you know, Republicans know that. They essentially gerrymandered District 2 to be a Democratic seat, which means this primary really is in all probability going to be effectively the whole race, which is one reason why so many Democrats decided to give it a go in 2020.

And, you know, the Democrats range from John Shea, who's in his mid-80s and lives in Nelson - and you may recall he held the seat more than a decade ago - to a 31-year-old Emmett Soldati, who's from Somersworth. There's also state Rep. Craig Thompson of Harrisville, Leah Plunkett, who's a professor at UNH Law School, Jay Surdukowski, a Concord lawyer, and Cinde Warmington, another lawyer based in Concord. Leah Plunkett's been a board member of Planned Parenthood, which has endorsed her. Surdukowski and Warmington have both held posts in the state Democratic Party. Warmington appears at this point to be benefiting most from the support of party insiders and unions.

Rick Ganley: Okay, so there's a lot of candidates. It would seem a lot of money would be plowed into the race.

Josh Rogers: Yes, we'll get a better sense of the money when new fundraising numbers come out tonight, but certainly plenty of money for a Council race. Warmington, Surdukowski, and Plunkett have all raised decent amounts already. And as any potential Democratic voter in the district with a mailbox knows at this point, a lot of that money is getting spent on direct mail.

Rick Ganley: Yeah, and much of those mailings have focused on the issue of abortion rights and the Council's role in confirming judges. How big a deal are those things in the Council's responsibilities?

Josh Rogers: Well, you know, abortion rights are certainly relevant to the Council when it comes to some health care contracts around family planning. And, you know, confirming judges is obviously one of the Council's biggest jobs period. And, you know, it's also a reality that talking about judges and abortion rights motivates Democratic primary voters. And right now, we still have a vacant chief justice job at the [New Hampshire] Supreme Court.

And as you know, Governor Sununu wanted and really still wants Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to become the state's chief justice. And the Council rejected MacDonald last year over his work for anti-abortion rights politicians and his lack of judicial experience. That was a party line vote with the Democrats opposing MacDonald. And ever since, Sununu's left the court without a chief basically in protest. If anything, Governor Sununu's response to the Council's rejection of MacDonald has rendered the attorney general more of a lightning rod.

And one Democrat running this year, Jay Surdukowski, was and is a staunch backer of the MacDonald nomination, and that stance has been controversial in this race.

And, you know, there's two political action committees spending money or poised to spend money in this race over this issue. One was formed by abortion rights activists, the other by a former MacDonald law partner. And that PAC, the one formed by the MacDonald law partner, has collected money from folks tied to Governor Sununu, including his legal counsel and the head of his judicial selection commission. And that PAC is running Facebook ads on Surdukowski's behalf, which is an interesting development in a Democratic race.

Rick Ganley: Josh, is there anything else that's really striking about this Council primary?

Josh Rogers: Well, I think broadly you could say that many candidates in this race now seem to see the Council's role as being pretty expansive.

Rick Ganley: What do you mean by that?

Josh Rogers: Part of this may be the Council's now seen as a bit more of a political stepping stone than it may have been the past. Governor Sununu obviously leapt from the council to the corner office and Andru Volinsky is trying to do the same. But, there's also the fact, and this may be a more powerful reality, is that the Council's control by Democrats has been the most effective check on Governor Sununu. Sununu can veto bills, and has vetoed bills, passed by Democratic lawmakers. But, you know, a Democratic Council can basically veto Sununu nominees to high government posts. And Democrats in this race also increasingly seem to see the Council as an avenue to influence government operations and achieve policy goals, rather than simply exercising oversight over the executive branch.

I mean, in a candidate like Cinde Warmington, her background is in health care law. You have her talking in debates like she intends to get deeply involved in how, say, the Department of Health and Human Services vets, contractors and writes contracts months before said contract would arrive at the Council for approval. You know, that would be a very big change if it came to pass. And you've got other candidates talking up the Council as a place to fight for economic justice, not simply to ensure their district gets construction projects and is well represented on boards and commissions, which would be the more traditional stance among Council candidates.

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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