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Income Tax And Abortion Remain Central Issues On N.H. Campaign Trail

There is a lot on the country's plate right now: a pandemic, economic disruption, a racial justice crisis, and serious climate change threats.

All are getting some attention on the New Hampshire campaign trail in 2020, but so too are the issues of income taxes and abortion, which animate every election here regardless of who is running.

NHPR's Morning Edition Host Rick Ganley spoke with senior political reporter Josh Rogers about the role these two perennial issues play in state elections, and why.

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Rick Ganley: So let's start with the governor's race. There's plenty of disagreement between Gov. Chris Sununu and his Democratic rival, Dan Feltes. Two areas where at least on the surface, they would seem to agree: both say they oppose any new broad based sales or income tax. And they both say they support abortion rights. So why are the two sides arguing over these issues?

Josh Rogers: That's true. But, you know, over the course of this campaign, Sununu has called Feltes an "income tax architect." Feltes, meanwhile, has said Sununu will limit abortion rights. This week, Feltes released an ad making that case pegged to the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the U.S. Supreme Court. And you know, the evidence that both candidates point to make to their claims is certainly there. But it's far from conclusive in either case.

Sununu and Republicans say that Dan Feltes's paid family leave plan, which relies on a mandatory payroll deduction, amounts to an income tax, which is kind of pushing it, at least as income taxes are commonly understood. Feltes, meanwhile, points out that Sununu has endorsed judges seen as hostile to abortion rights, Brett Kavanaugh among them, and that he also vetoed a bill requiring that insurers cover abortions, a move that Gov. Sununu said was driven by a potential loss of federal money to the state.

But, you know, you get beneath the particulars of the critiques back and forth, and what you're really dealing with is what amount to the two fundamental issues for the respective political parties in New Hampshire: taxes and abortion, both in terms of rallying their own supporters and also in terms of attacking the other side.

Rick Ganley: Now, what do you mean?

Josh Rogers: Well, for years, Republicans have tried to tar Democrats as income taxers. It gets used against really almost any Democrat and certainly every candidate for governor. And even though the Democratic Party leadership of the state has basically worked to quash support for new broad based taxes over the last two decades. And, you know, during that time, they've nominated gubernatorial candidates, Feltes included, who've pledged to veto income taxes.

And on the Democratic side, for years, they've used abortion rights to rally their voters and really to question every Republican who runs, and to insinuate that they can't be trusted to protect women's health care, as Democrats often put it. And the new makeup of the U.S. Supreme Court certainly gives the question of abortion rights more urgency in this moment. But, you know, in every election I've covered in New Hampshire over the past two decades, Democrats worked to push Republican candidates on abortion. That's been the case when Republicans nominate people who are pretty staunch in their opposition to abortion, like Kelly Ayotte, but also when Republicans nominate people who are more supportive of abortion rights, people like Gov. Sununu.

So for both parties in New Hampshire, one way to really see these two issues is definitional, almost kind of identity politics. But, you know, something that's interesting on both fronts is it's not like polling shows that income taxes are really that popular among New Hampshire Democrats. And it's also true that would show that New Hampshire voters, even Republicans in New Hampshire, are really that hostile to abortion rights, if at all, by national standards.

Rick Ganley: So that means that we're seeing this kind of dynamic outside of the state house races, too, right?

Josh Rogers: Well, if you look to the first congressional district race where Republican Matt Mowers is challenging incumbent Democrat Chris Pappas, Matt Mowers has run ads claiming Pappas backs a state income tax, which is neither true nor supported by Pappas' voting record when he served in the state legislature. It's also obviously not terribly relevant to Congress. You know, we already have a federal income tax.

Rick Ganley: But the hope is voters here, you know, see income tax and they rule Pappas out? I mean, is that the general strategy?

Josh Rogers: Well, it's certainly for Mowers, tarring Pappas in any way probably helps. But, you know, this dynamic probably gets stronger and more relevant the less the voters actually know about the candidates at hand. You think about down ballot state house races, where voters really may not know much of anything about the candidates they're asked to vote for. And, you know, the GOP is basically labeled every Democrat an income taxer. And state Senate Democrats, their political arm this week, even put an ad up making the case that they don't support an income tax, which does seem to show that the claim may have Senate Democrats a bit worried.

And certainly in a year when there's so much attention at the very top of the ticket, and on issues that are really outside the electoral realm, a broad brush approach to winning and making really raw appeals on issues like taxes and abortion that have sort of a visceral aspect to them is definitely a lot of what we're getting.

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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