New Hampshire Dem icon at risk after work with Trump

One of the longest-serving officeholders in the country and the fiercest protector of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary is facing an unexpectedly difficult re-election bid from within his own party, in part because of his work with President TrumpDonald John TrumpMcCabe says he was fired because he 'opened a case against' Trump McCabe: Trump said 'I don't care, I believe Putin' when confronted with US intel on North Korea McCabe: Trump talked to me about his election victory during 'bizarre' job interview MORE’s debunked voter fraud commission.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, 70, is seeking his 22nd two-year term in office this year. He has served as the state’s top elections and business registration official under ten governors and presided over ten presidential primaries, often engaging in high-stakes jockeying to keep New Hampshire’s primary at the front of the nominating process.

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He is the only secretary of state in the country who is elected by New Hampshire’s 400 state representatives and 24 senators, rather than by voters. As a testament to his longevity, he has rarely faced a serious challenge, even though he is a Democrat, and even in years when Republicans hold majorities in both houses of the legislature.

Gardner is a familiar face to anyone who participates in New Hampshire politics.

He personally greets presidential candidates who make the pilgrimage to his corner office in the statehouse in Concord, where they formally file to run in the state’s presidential primary.

“His presence is huge. He’s an icon in the process,” said Lou D’Allesandro (D), a longtime state senator and Gardner backer who once had Gardner in his civics class at Bishop Bradley High School.

But this year, Gardner will face his most contentious challenge from Colin Van Ostern, a fellow Democrat who served on New Hampshire’s Executive Council and who ran as the Democratic nominee for governor in 2016.

Van Ostern, 39, was not yet born when Gardner first took office. His supporters say it is time for someone new to take over an office that has been reluctant to keep up with modern advances in voting rights and technology, like online voter registration or even adopting electronic poll books. 

At the same time, Gardner angered some Democrats by supporting a measure that would make it more difficult for college students living in New Hampshire to vote in state elections.

“We’ve had an increasing need for a more modern and accountable secretary of state’s office,” Van Ostern said in an interview Thursday. “No one’s entitled to the job, even after 42 years. I believe that a majority of the legislature wants a modern and accountable Secretary of State’s office.”

What irked Democrats and voting rights advocates the most, several said, was Gardner’s participation in President Trump’s voter fraud task force, co-chaired by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (R), which shuttered earlier this year without finding any evidence of voter fraud in the 2016 elections. 

“Participation in the fraud commission I think unfortunately gave political cover and the dignity of New Hampshire, which prides itself as a bastion of democracy, it gave cover to these fraudulent claims of voter fraud,” said state Sen. David Watters (D), a Van Ostern backer. “I do think that Bill Gardner has politicized the office by supporting efforts to suppress the vote.”

Even Gardner’s backers acknowledge that his work on the voter fraud committee has hurt his standing. Gardner, unlike other Democratic and even some Republican secretaries of state, made preparations to hand over state voter data to the panel.

“Joining the Trump committee, I think that was something that people didn’t like,” D’Allesandro said.

The two candidates face off on Wednesday, just hours after the new legislature is sworn in. Democrats reclaimed the majority in both chambers in the midterm elections; they will hold 233 of the 400 seats in the state House, and 14 of 24 seats in the state Senate.

In the recent past, Gardner’s elections have been virtually pro forma. This year, there are signs he faces serious trouble. In a straw poll earlier this month, incoming Democratic legislators backed Van Ostern over Gardner by a 179 to 23 margin.

And the race has taken on a more partisan hue, for the first time. State Republicans have lined up behind Gardner, even though he was elected to the state House as a Democrat four decades ago. 

“Recently I think, in part because of Gardner’s participation in the Trump-Kobach commission and his support for the voter suppression bills, I think it’s become politicized,” Watters said.

Gardner’s backers worry that, should he lose, New Hampshire’s coveted position at the head of the presidential nominating pack might be in jeopardy. But Van Ostern supporters point to a state law that requires New Hampshire to hold their primary before any other state, as evidence that Van Ostern would be able to defend the first-in-the-nation status.

Gardner has done less formal campaigning than Van Ostern, citing his role administering this year’s midterm elections. But in recent days, he has earned support from five of the seven living former governors of the state, including Democrat John Lynch and four Republicans.

The two former governors who did not sign the letter are Jeanne ShaheenCynthia (Jeanne) Jeanne ShaheenCongress must step up to protect Medicare home health care Dems slam EPA plan for fighting drinking water contaminants Bipartisan Senators reintroduce legislation to slap new sanctions on Russia MORE and Maggie HassanMargaret (Maggie) HassanOvernight Health Care — Sponsored by America's 340B Hospitals — Dems blast rulemaking on family planning program | Facebook may remove anti-vaccine content | Medicare proposes coverage for new cancer treatment Trade official warns senators of obstacles to quick China deal Actor Chris Evans meets with Democratic senators before State of the Union MORE, both sitting U.S. senators who have said they will stay neutral.