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N.H. Democratic Gubernatorial Candidates Head Into Final Stretch Of Primary Race

File photos, NHPR

The biggest race on Tuesday's Democratic primary ballot is for governor. The primary pits state Sen. Dan Feltes against Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky.

According to a recent University of New Hampshire poll, the Democrats vying to take on incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu are locked in a dead heat.

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NHPR's Peter Biello spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about where things stand in the race's final stretch.

Note: This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity  

Peter Biello: So lots in common for Feltes and Volinsky - both from Concord, both are lawyers and both are running as progressives. How are they differentiating themselves down the stretch?

Josh Rogers: Well, you know, one way this primary has been interesting is that excepting for the issue of broad based taxes, Dan Feltes has embraced the pledge to oppose new broad based taxes. Andru Volinsky loudly rejects it. You know, the lines dividing these candidates policy wise are pretty slim. There's been plenty of fighting over who's pure on environmental and energy issues. Volinsky's made much of his wholesale opposition to natural gas pipelines in the state and Feltes' relative openness in that regard.

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And, you know, the candidates have also fought over who's pure on campaign finance issues, quarreling, for instance, over a few under $500 checks they've received. And, you know, I have to say, even as a political reporter who writes about campaign finance issues, some of the fighting on this front has gotten awfully specific. But, you know, the intensity with which their campaigns have been willing to litigate this thing may be kind of telling. And, you know, I think it probably illustrates the degree to which courting activists around specific issues on really narrow grounds is something that both campaigns see is crucial.

Late last week, Dan Feltes was really leaning into solar energy, while Andru Volinsky was getting out and about his plan to legalize marijuana and allow it to be sold at liquor stores. And, you know, it's interesting that Volinsky also is quite supportive of solar energy, and Feltes is open to marijuana legalization. So, you know, really a lot of this primary has been kind of a matter of emphasis.

Peter Biello: So in most ways, there's no huge differences policy wise. But it does appear Volinsky is trying to make sure primary voters see him to Feltes' left in ideological terms.

Josh Rogers: I think that's fair. And, you know, Dan Feltes has also worked hard to set himself up as the candidate, perhaps more palatable to a broader array of Democratic voters. And that's likely helped Feltes build his stronger core of what you might consider to be establishment support, which, you know, has historically tended to carry the day in Democratic gubernatorial primaries. You have to go back to 2002 to find a year in which Democratic primary voters in New Hampshire didn't really gravitate more to the establishment candidate. And, you know, that was also the last time Democrats nominated someone who had rejected the pledge to veto broad based taxes.

And the way this issue has been talked about in this campaign is interesting. You know, Volinsky, he does reject the pledge loudly, but he also isn't proposing a specific new broad based tax. And Dan Feltes, while promising to veto any broad based tax, is often talked about his opposition in what you might consider non categorical terms. He said 2020 is not a broad based tax year arguing, I suppose, for pragmatism and also maybe being canny about not trying to offend the many Democratic primary voters who do oppose the pledge and favor moving towards a broad based tax. But, you know, 2020 is not the year also suggests the possibility that another year could be a year for a broad based tax. And I think we can expect the Sununu campaign to tease out that notion should Feltes end up winning tomorrow.

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Peter Biello: Is the choice for Democrats then more about leadership style than policy differences?

Josh Rogers: Well, both these guys, by dint of their positions, by dint of their political ambitions, have really been trying to set themselves up as foils to Gov. Sununu for some time. Feltes by pushing key Democratic bills through the legislature on things like renewable energy, paid family leave, campaign finance matters that Governor Sununu has vetoed on many of these. Feltes' argument is essentially that he's led Democrats and stood up for so-called everyday people, as Sununu has apparently done the bidding of the powerful. You know, anyone who's listened to him knows Dan Feltes is rather dogged about that kind of framing.

But, you know, I think COVID-19 has made the emphasis on specific bills and vetoes less urgent than Dan Feltes probably imagined it would be. And Andru Volinsky, meanwhile, has been a vocal opponent to Sununu nominees at the council table, often with a real ideological focus. And he's brought an intensity to that opposition, which has gotten him a lot of attention, not all of it good, by the way. And think of him on Sununu's education nominees and his role in fighting and the council's rejection of Sununu's nomination of Attorney General Gordon MacDonald to the [New Hampshire] Supreme Court. You know, sometimes Volinsky has gone pretty scorched earth. And some Democrats are really into that. Others aren't. But the approach has definitely been distinctive.

Peter Biello: You mentioned that it's been almost 20 years since Democratic primary voters didn't pick the more establishment candidate. How relevant is that dynamic going to be tomorrow?

Josh Rogers: Who knows, Peter? And, you know, one can sort of overcook the establishment versus outsider framing generally, and certainly how it applies to Dan Feltes and Andru Volinsky. And in a year like this, given what's going on in New Hampshire and in the world, orthodoxy on the pledge may not be top of mind for most people. And while Democrats tend to win the corner office in presidential years, you actually have to go back to 1992 to find a year where they didn't.

Gov. Sununu is looking quite strong right now. So, you know, you do wonder how much that might influence Democratic primary voters thinking. Does it make them take more of a flyer in the primary, or stick to somebody who's tried to adhere to the party's more traditional recipe or does it even enter their minds? I mean, there's a lot we don't know, and folks will be voting tomorrow.

And between now and then, both campaigns are going to be working to get out their voters, at least those who haven't cast ballots already absentee. A little bit later this morning, Dan Feltes will be rallying with union members at Teamsters headquarters in Manchester. And Andru Volinsky will be rallying supporters later today at Labor Day events. And he's going to be participating in a Zoom event tonight where Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is also going to make an appearance.

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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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