Traction comes slowly in open NH governor’s race

Posted Aug. 19, 2012, at 9:08 p.m.

CONCORD, N.H. — Candidates hoping to become New Hampshire’s next governor are finding both challenges and opportunities in competing for the first open seat in a decade.

Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s retirement after four two-year terms set the stage for a spirited race in a state that has swung sharply to the left and then to the right over the years. But with just three weeks to go until the Sept. 11 primary, many of the candidates remain virtually unknown to voters, and it’s unclear where the pendulum will stop in November.

The Republican ballot features attorney Ovide Lamontagne, former state Rep. Kevin Smith and Robert Tarr. Former state Sen. Maggie Hassan, former Sen. Jackie Cilley and businesman Jack Kennedy are seeking the Democratic nomination.

Lamontagne, who was the GOP nominee in 1996 and ran for U.S. Senate in 2010, was the only candidate known to a majority of voters in a recent Granite State WMUR poll. The others were largely unknown even to voters in their own party.

That is not unusual — in a similar poll in 2004, two-thirds of Democrats didn’t know enough about first-time candidate Lynch to voice an opinion of him. But the recent poll does highlight the degree to which voters are remaining on the sidelines.

In hypothetical matchups, the poll in all cases found close races between whichever Republican was paired with each Democrat. But in all the matchup scenarios, at least a third of voters said they were undecided.

“That only bears out the concept that people haven’t tuned in at all,” said Belknap County GOP Chairman Alan Glassman. “There are still a lot of people out there who have no idea who’s running and really aren’t interested. For that matter, there probably are many people out there who have no real firm idea of what the primary is.”

Though it will help boost general election turnout, New Hampshire’s position as a swing state in the presidential election likely is dampening interest in the down-ballot races during the summer, Glassman said.

“When you watch TV or listen to the radio, everything is ‘president, president, president,”’ he said.

Jamie Burnett, adviser to the Smith campaign, said he expects the primary race to come down to the last days, if not hours. In that scenario, voters are more likely to go with the candidate who offers a fresher perspective over the tried-and-true, he argues. That’s happened in other Republican primaries around the country recently, and it happened in New Hampshire in 1996, when Lamontagn e came from behind to defeat a well-known former congressman in the primary.

“The undecideds have been breaking toward newer Republican candidates,” Burnett said. “That is a positive thing for someone like Kevin Smith.”

Jim Merrill, adviser to Lamontagne, said voters may be slow to tune in because even though “you have this jump ball for the governor’s race,” Lynch remains very popular. But he says Lamontagne is doing what he needs to do to build support among conservative and moderate Republicans alike.

“We’re excited by where we are,” he said. “The voters in New Hampshire are discerning. They showed that in the (presidential) primary — they decide late.”

On the Democratic side, voter apathy may mean that unions and other activists may have a greater role in influencing the primary outcome. Hassan counts the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association among her endorsements, while the Professional Firefighters of New Hampshire is backing Cilley.

David Lang, president of the firefighters union, said contrary to the poll results, firefighters are paying attention and are ready to work hard to elect Cilley. Next week, they’ll join her on a two-day, six-town tour.

“Our folks are property taxpayers, they live in the communities they work in … they care about their communities,” he said. “So they are engaged and looking at this governor’s race.”

Matt Burgess, Hassan’s campaign manager, said he has noticed a shift in voters’ attention in the last few weeks. While the house parties Hassan attended all winter and spring attracted mostly die-hard activists and supporters, more undecided voters have been showing up at her popular ice cream socials this summer, he said.

The poll showing Hassan and Lamontagne about even, with a third of voters still undecided, is good news for Hassan, given that Lamontagne is better known, Burgess said.

“People know him and they’re not going with him,” he said.

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