There are 11 gubernatorial races this fall, and one of the most competitive is in the swing state of New Hampshire.
There, Republican Ovide Lamontagne and Democrat Maggie Hassan are vying to replace a popular Democrat who opted not to seek a fifth term. Both political parties and outside advocacy groups are pushing hard in a race where neither candidate enjoys a clear edge.
The fact that New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie and former President Bill Clinton spent time stumping for their party’s candidate in New Hampshire is just one sign this race is a priority for party leaders in D.C. as well as Concord. Another is the more than $10 million of TV ad time that’s been purchased by outside groups.
Lamontagne is a self-described “constitutional conservative,” who has previously run for Congress, governor and U.S. Senate — never before with strong backing from party insiders.
“It’s very different,” Lamontagne says. “I am not used to this, frankly, and am humbled by the support and enthusiasm of people around the country.”
Yet the central themes of this race — taxes and social issues — are familiar. Lamontagne was routed during his first run for governor when Democrats branded him as extreme on social issues. Sixteen years later, Hassan is taking the exact same approach.
“Under my opponent’s version of ‘Live Free or Die,’ abortion would be illegal, creationism could be taught in our schools and the state would be able to prevent loving couples from marrying,” she said in a recent speech.
Hassan is a former state senator who has pledged to veto a sales or income tax if elected. But Lamontange is casting Hassan as someone who raised taxes as a lawmaker, and will do so again.
“Every tax increase, every fee hike takes freedom and liberty and capital away from us, and it funds bigger government, and it chokes our children’s future and our own,” Lamontange says.
Neither Lamontange nor Hassan is very well known outside of political circles. Both are lawyers, but they cut very different cultural profiles. Lamontagne plays up his French-Canadian roots, and that he lives in his parents’ old house in Manchester. Hassan downplays that her father was a top official in the Johnson administration, and that she lives on the campus of Phillips Exeter Academy, where her husband is principal.
One thing the candidates do share, however, is campaigns that mostly argue that the other is bent on changing New Hampshire. According to University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala, there’s a good reason for this.
“New Hampshire voters don’t especially want their governor to be this ideological agent of change,” Scala says. “New Hampshire voters want their governor to be on hand in the case of an emergency, but they have this idea that the governor is like mayor of this small town called New Hampshire.”
One need only look at the modest approach taken by the current governor, John Lynch, a Democrat who often hands voters his cellphone number. With a near 70 percent approval rating, Lynch would have almost certainly won another term if he’d sought it. Instead, he’s thrown his support to Hassan.
Yet this race may end up being decided by other politicians, ones named Obama and Romney.
“If turnout is high at the top of the ticket for their party, then they’ll do well,” says pollster Andy Smith, who directs the University of New Hampshire Survey Center. “If turnout at the top of the ticket is not so high, they’re in trouble, particularly in a state like New Hampshire, which is pretty evenly balanced.”
So evenly balanced, in fact, that polls show every major race here running near neck-and-neck, from the presidential contest to Hassan and Lamontagne’s battle for the governor’s office.