Hot Races to Watch: New Hampshire Governor

GOP looks to Granite State royalty to extend blue state win streak

After suffering a series of stinging defeats in the Granite State, Republicans have turned to a tried-and-true New Hampshire dynasty to bring them victory in 2016.

New Hampshire was far off any top target lists for GOP gubernatorial pickups until strong incumbent Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassen decided to run against Sen. Kelly Ayotte rather than seek reelection.

The move has left Democrats scrambling for a standard-bearer, locked in an uncertain gubernatorial primary pitting a trio of mundane candidates against each other.

Republicans, sensing the opportunity in the Democrats’ lack of a front-runner, quickly coalesced around Executive Councilor Chris Sununu, the newest protege to seek high office in a true line of Granite State GOP nobility.

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The Sununu family’s curriculum vitae in the state is impressive. John H. Sununu held the governor’s mansion for six years and went on to be White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush. His son, John E. Sununu, served one term as U.S. senator after serving three terms representing New Hampshire’s 1st District in the House of Representatives.

Chris Sununu is another of Gov. Sununu’s sons, and it will fall to him to carry on the family tradition and win the governor’s mansion in 2016. The Sununus are well-connected nationally and the state is host to one of the top three most competitive Senate races in the country, so bountiful campaign funding is not likely to be a problem for the GOP standard-bearer. Both sides will want a strong performance out of their gubernatorial candidates since the margin of that race could impact the razor-thin, and massively important, contest for Senate.

[lz_infobox]Civics Lesson: New Hampshire has one of the weakest constitutional governors in the nation. The governor must have major measures approved by a five-member executive council. GOP front-runner Chris Sununu is serving his third term as one of those councilors, who wield authority over Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassen. Republicans currently control the council 3 to 2.[/lz_infobox]

The only poll on the Democratic side found Executive Councilor Colin Van Ostern slightly ahead of former Deputy Secretary of State Mark Connolly in late 2015. Sununu topped both of the leading Democratic candidates in a poll from Democrat-affiliated firm Public Policy Polling conducted in early 2016. Sununu led Connolly by 2 percent and Van Ostern by 4. Another poll from Gravis Marketing, released shortly after PPP’s, found Sununu leading Van Ostern by a commanding 14 points.

The state may be primed for GOP victory despite not going red in a presidential election since 2000. Businessman Walt Havenstein laid plenty of groundwork for the party with a strong challenge to Hassen in 2014. Havenstein raised $2.2 million in the tiny, two-congressional-district state and came within five points of toppling the Democratic incumbent.

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Republicans may also reap some benefit from Republican Gov. Charlie Baker’s upset 2014 victory and ensuing high popularity in neighboring Massachusetts. A huge proportion of New Hampshire swing voters live in the Boston media market. These Granite State voters get Boston news, Boston sports, and many identify as much as Red Sox Nation as New Hampsherites. They see the high marks the neighboring GOP governor has earned for tackling labor disputes, handling historic snowfall, and more recently bringing General Electric to Boston. What they see from the very popular Republican leader just over the border in the Bay State could translate into some added interest in Sununu.

Sununu, armed with his family’s long history in the state and national connections, and facing a splintered Democratic field rather than a strong incumbent, will have a real shot at winning in the New England state. A win in New Hampshire would expand previous GOP victories in blue states Illinois, Maryland, and Massachusetts, leaving Democrats forced to play defense deep on their own turf in states like Connecticut in 2018.

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