In an unusual display of a peculiar local tradition, the New Hampshire legislature reelected Secretary of State Bill Gardner to a 22nd term as secretary of State (and thus elections chief). That’s right: Gardner has held the position since 1976. But he was actually an underdog to former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern when the newly Democratic legislature voted today, thanks to his involvement with Donald Trump’s fiasco of a “voter fraud” commission and his support for restrictions in voting by college students, which offset his own original Democratic affiliation back in the day.
Van Ostern, who called for modernization of the secretary of State’s office, won an easy straw poll endorsement from Democratic legislators meeting as a caucus last month. But he retained just enough Democratic support to stay in contention, as the Union Leader reports:
Gardner had the support of all Republicans and many powerful Democrats, like former Gov. John Lynch and Manchester Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, the dean of the Senate…
Gardner said last week that the straw vote was not necessarily an accurate indication of how he would fare on Dec. 5. He pointed out that 55 elected Democrats at the Nov. 15 caucus did not vote for Van Ostern. Some were absent, some left before the secretary of state straw vote and seven left the ballot blank.
There was last-minute drama when Gardner fell one vote short of an actual majority after edging Van Ostern 208-207. A second vote was called, and Gardner added a vote and won.
The incumbent may have saved himself by pledging to step down in 2020, just wanting one more term to reach the 100th anniversary of the inauguration of the New Hampshire presidential primary. Gardner was widely regarded as the monomaniacal guardian of the Granite State’s first-in-the-nation status. And indeed, his supporters warned that if he lost to a partisan Democrats, Republicans might retaliate against the state by entertaining rivals to that status.
That seems a bit far-fetched, particularly since Republicans probably won’t even have a competitive New Hampshire primary in 2020 and it also wouldn’t make much sense to overturn a largely settled early state order just to vindicate one election official. But the neurotic talk about Gardner may reflect very real fears in New Hampshire and other early states about the impact of early voting on their quadrennial showcases, as Gabriel Debenedetti recent noted:
Ohio and Illinois could both begin their own early voting before the Granite State’s day in the spotlight, and Georgia and North Carolina could start the day of New Hampshire’s primary. Then the windows could open in Tennessee, Texas, Arizona, and Louisiana before Nevada’s caucuses, let alone South Carolina’s primary.
There was just enough don’t-rock-any-boats sentiment in New Hampshire to save Bill Gardner. Whether the grip this small and not terribly representative state has on presidential politics can be saved over the long haul is an entirely different matter.