2020 elections

Why New Hampshire’s Bill Gardner May Lose the Office He’s Held for Four Decades

The legendary guardian of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary could soon lose his job. Photo: Orjan F. Ellingvag/Corbis via Getty Images

New Hampshire is one of three states in which the secretary of state, the top election official (among other duties), is neither directly elected nor appointed by the governor, but is instead named by the legislature. The Granite State’s election for this position is scheduled for December 5, after the legislators elected on November 6 are sworn in.

The state’s legendary incumbent, Bill Gardner, was first elected secretary of state in 1976. He was at that time a Democratic legislator, though his partisan identity has faded over the 42 years since then. Until last year, Gardner was principally renowned for his national identity as a zealous defender of his state’s first-in-the-nation presidential primary. He literally wrote (or co-wrote, with former governor Hugh Gregg) the book on arguments for that perpetual primacy (Why New Hampshire, published in 2003).

Gardner hasn’t had a serious challenge in a long time, but he made a crucial mistake last year when he joined the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, which was technically chaired by Vice-President Mike Pence but was really run by vice-chairman Kris Kobach, the nation’s most prominent advocate of aggressive pursuit of “illegal aliens” and onerous restrictions on voting. The commission was widely panned as a Trump-Kobach effort to buttress allegations of a phantom menace of “voter fraud,” and was disbanded after less than a year after many states (not including New Hampshire) refused to share confidential voter data with the body. It signally failed to document Trump’s own notorious claims that millions of illegal voters had given Hillary Clinton a popular-vote victory in 2016. Gardner was regarded by many New Hampshire Democrats as an enabler of the whole enterprise:

In September, Gardner faced a chorus of calls from leading Granite State Democrats, including the entire Congressional delegation and top State House leaders, to resign from the commission after Kobach said that voter fraud in New Hampshire may have led to Democratic challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan’s extremely narrow victory in the 2016 election over incumbent Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte.

Gardner disputed Kobach’s “stolen election” claims at the final commission meeting, but he still drew negative attention for hosting that meeting in New Hampshire. He also angered Democrats by supporting Republican legislation in New Hampshire to tighten voter-eligibility rules in an effort to restrict voting by college students.

So with Democrats retaking control of both chambers of the New Hampshire legislature in November, it was probably inevitable that Gardner would draw a challenge. And a viable candidate to replace him emerged in former State Executive Council member and 2016 gubernatorial candidate Colin Van Ostern, who is running on a platform of modernizing the secretary of state’s office while eliminating efforts to suppress votes. The incoming House Democratic caucus endorsed him emphatically:

In a non-binding ballot, 179 state representatives supported 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern of Concord as their preferred nominee for secretary of state. Gardner received 23 votes, with former state lawmaker Peter Sullivan of Manchester grabbing seven votes. Sullivan dropped out of the race Friday.

Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t happy about it, and are rallying around Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the country.

Gardner retains some Democratic support, and his allies are making the dubious argument that the state’s position in the presidential primary calendar could be threatened by a change, as Politico notes:

While few expect a Gardner defeat would have a significant effect on the 2020 primary, the secretary of state’s defenders argue that replacing him — and his rigorously nonpartisan approach to the job — with a more openly partisan official like Van Ostern could put the state’s traditional position on the primary calendar at risk in the future.

This sort of talking point might have found more traction a decade or two ago, when challenges to the presidential nominating duopoly of Iowa and New Hampshire were more common. Now that a southern (South Carolina) and western (Nevada) state have been allowed into the charmed circle of protected early contests, there’s a lot less talk about interfering with Iowa’s first-in-the-nation caucuses or New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary. Even if national Republicans were mildly annoyed about a Democratic secretary of state taking office in New Hampshire, it would hardly be worth the effort to turn the primary calendar upside down to protest it, with all the unintended consequences that might involve.

So if Gardner does lose in December, you can probably mark it up as just another Trump casualty, and a warning to Democrats elsewhere that playing ball with MAGA’s less-reputable causes will have serious ramifications.

New Hampshire Secretary of State May Lose for Enabling Trump