State Watch

New Hampshire’s secretary of state narrowly holds seat

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New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, one of the longest-serving officeholders in the country and a fierce defender of his state’s first-in-the-nation primary, on Wednesday won his bid for a 22nd term by a narrow margin.

State legislators meeting in Concord picked Gardner over Colin Van Ostern, a former Democratic member of the state Executive Council, by a vote of 209-205.

{mosads}It was Gardner’s toughest reelection fight in his four-decade career. Van Ostern won an informal straw poll of Democratic legislators just after Election Day by a wide margin. 

The vote required a second ballot, after Gardner came just one vote away from winning on the first ballot.

Many of the state’s most prominent Republicans, including state Senate Minority Leader Jeb Bradley (R), backed Gardner. So did five of the seven living former governors of the state, including ex-Gov. John Lynch (D).

The two governors who did not wade into the race are both sitting U.S. Senators — Sens. Jeanne Shaheen (D) and Maggie Hassan (D).

Gardner, 70, first won office in 1976. A Democrat, Gardner has held his office even when Republicans controlled the state legislature.

As a mark of just how long Gardner has been around, he began running the secretary of state’s office before Van Ostern, 39, was born.

But Gardner in recent years 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. 

Van Ostern supporters said Wednesday they were angry about the state’s aging voting machines, and conflicting information about whether town hall meetings could be delayed or moved during snow storms in the past two years.

Gardner also participated in President Trump’s voter fraud task force, which shuttered earlier this year without finding evidence of fraud in the 2016 elections. He was the only Democratic participant on the commission who made preparations to hand over state voter data.

“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,” state Sen. David Watters (D), a Van Ostern backer, told The Hill last week. “I do think that Bill Gardner has politicized the office by supporting efforts to suppress the vote.”

Even some of Gardner’s most ardent backers acknowledged that the voter fraud commission hurt his chances at reelection.

“Joining the Trump committee, I think that was something that people didn’t like,” said state Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the longest-serving Democrat in the legislature and a Gardner backer.

Gardner backers said they worried that his absence would threaten the status of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. Gardner has long engaged in high-stakes jockeying with other states that tried to move their nominating contests ahead of New Hampshire.

Van Ostern backers say state law requires New Hampshire’s presidential primary to come before any similar contest — a provision that allows Iowa’s caucuses to go first.

Gardner will face reelection again in 2020 — but not until after he presides over his 11th primary.

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