Same N.H. Economy, But Sununu and Kelly See It Very Differently

Oct 22, 2018

Credit NHPR Photo

In most election years, the thinking goes that a strong economy boosts the party in power. The incumbents can argue ‘Hey, just look at your wallet!' as they make a pitch for another term.

Governor Chris Sununu is very much following that playback, while his challenger Molly Kelly works to paint a different economic picture in the state.

[Audio for this story will be posted shortly.]

The numbers in New Hampshire are rosy right now, and Chris Sununu knows it.

“Our economy is booming, and more people are working than ever before,” says Sununu in his latest campaign ad. “New Hampshire is back and better than ever, and nothing is going to slow us down.”

The upbeat economic message from the first term Republican comes up early and often in his stump speeches, too. In Bedford earlier this month, Sununu touted his business friendly approach, pointing to companies that have recently expanded in New Hampshire, including Hitchiner in Milford and Lonza in Portsmouth. To him, that’s proof that he deserves another two years in office.

“I’m a big believer that when you focus on the economy, and you cut taxes, and you do regulatory reform, and you listen to the needs of businesses, you do those things that can separate us from the rest of the pack,” Sununu told the New England Council.

Sununu isn’t alone in his take on the economy. Russ Thibeault of the Laconia-based firm Applied Economic Research says in his 40 years studying New Hampshire, this is just about as good as it’s ever been. From unemployment to housing prices to the labor force, New Hampshire is performing well.

But Thibeault says there is one major shortcoming. “The big negative thing right now I think is wage growth, has been really disappointing, not just here in New Hampshire but nationally.”

Thibeault says since the recovery began, it’s almost as if there are two parallel economies--the economy of the educated workforce, those who benefit from a bullish stock market. And then there are more blue-collar workers, and retail and hospitality employees, who haven’t felt the same economic surge.

“The recovery has been much more corporate than, say, around the dinner table,” says Thibeault.

Sununu’s Democratic challenger, former State Senator Molly Kelly, is trying to highlight the  gap between those two economies.

“What I want to do is I want to build a New Hampshire that works for everyone, and not just a few. And I’m concerned that that’s what’s happening and we are not able to move forward,” Kelly says.

She’s made her own personal economic story a central theme in the campaign, painting herself as someone more in touch with struggling families.

“I know how hard it can be to put food on the table. I worked my way through college, I was a young single mom with three small children,” says the candidate in a recent television ad.

But when it comes to policy proposals, Kelly has focused less on Sununu’s handling of the state’s budget or tax cuts, and instead talks almost exclusively about his failure to get a paid family medical leave program passed. It’s an economic issue, but it isn’t necessarily tied to the overall economy.

UNH pollster and political science professor Andy Smith says it may be wise for Kelly to not try to take Sununu head on over the broader economy.

“It’s going to be difficult for her to run on a platform that Sununu has mismanaged the New Hampshire economy,” says Smith. “People just aren’t going to believe it. I think what she needs to do is go after Sununu on other issues.”

UNH’s polling shows that just 10% of voters point to the economy right now as the state’s top concern. The opioid crisis is far and away the highest priority.

Smith says another finding from their recent polling is that, more and more, voters loyal to one party see everything through that party’s lens. Democrats and Republicans, to some extent, don’t even agree about how the economy is doing.

“If it’s their guy in office, everything is going well. If it is the other guy in office, the other party in office, they think that things are going terribly.”

It’s a further signal of how partisanship now shapes nearly every aspect of politics, and that individual issues, like the economy, may not sway voters the way they once did.