Democratic gubernatorial candidates debate at Dartmouth
Two Democratic hopefuls seeking to challenge New Hampshire’s Republican governor Chris Sununu in the 2018 election spoke at a forum on Monday in Alumni Hall to discuss policy proposals before a crowd of about 300 Dartmouth students, faculty and community members.
The forum, hosted by the Rockefeller Center for Public Policy, featured former state senator Molly Kelly and former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, the two leading candidates for the New Hampshire Democratic gubernatorial nomination. Public policy professor Charles Wheelan ’88 served as the moderator for the event.
The two candidates largely found common ground on topics including gun control, the opioid epidemic and education, but differed drastically in style and rhetoric.
Kelly, emphasizing her record in the state Senate and her endorsements from Planned Parenthood, labor unions and New Hampshire’s two U.S. senators, criticized Sununu and President Donald Trump’s administration while urging compromise and pragmatic politics as a means of obtaining progressive policy changes.
“We want a New Hampshire that works for everyone, where everyone has a chance to succeed, not just a few,” Kelly said.
Marchand, while agreeing with Kelly on many of the issues, took a more aggressive tone — scorning compromise with Republicans and urging Democrats to change the political culture in the state — and drew more applause by calling on Democrats to appeal to their base rather than reach out to moderate and conservative voters.
“The way to get progressive policies … is not by persuading Chris Sununu and Donald Trump; it will be by replacing Chris Sununu and Donald Trump,” Marchand said.
Marchand notably distinguished himself by stating his opposition to “the Pledge,” a promise typically made by Democratic and Republican gubernatorial candidates in New Hampshire to not support a broad-based income or sales tax for the state, which currently has neither. Marchand called New Hampshire’s system of government “antiquated” and advocated for changing the state’s political culture so the government is not as reliant on higher property taxes for revenue. Kelly, however, said that she opposes a sales or income tax and is “proud” of New Hampshire’s political culture.
The two candidates found common ground on the need for additional gun control legislation. Kelly said that she worries every day about the safety of her seven grandchildren at school and supports universal background checks. Marchand, who said that a recent suicide attempt by a person close to him increased his passion about the issue, called for a 48-hour waiting period for gun purchases and for Democrats to stop trying to stake out a moderate path on gun control.
“It is not enough for us to say, ‘common sense gun reform’ in the hopes that a few people in the middle will come our way,” Marchand said.
On the issue of the environment and energy policy, the candidates both supported policies to combat climate change but clashed over the issue of campaign contributions from the fossil fuel industry. Marchand proposed raising the gas tax and claimed that he is the only candidate in the election to have never taken money from Eversource, New Hampshire’s largest energy provider. Kelly responded by claiming that she has not received any contributions from the fossil fuel industry in the current election cycle and has not been influenced by donations in the past, pointing to her sponsorship of a net metering bill in the state Senate, which supported solar and hydroelectric power sources.
In an interview after the event, Wheelan said that he was surprised by how many questions from the audience focused on energy and the environment, including local issues such as Northern Pass, a proposed transmission line that would bring electric power from Canada to New England.
“One clear takeaway is that among Democratic voters, energy, climate change and related issues — including those specific projects — are very important,” Wheelan said.
Wheelan anticipates that Marchand’s refusal to take The Pledge will be a “defining issue” in the primary, especially considering how that decision may affect his chances in the general election. He also commented on how the two candidates’ different types of experience — Kelly’s background as a state legislator and Marchand’s as a mayor — gave them distinct viewpoints on some of the policy topics.
President of the Dartmouth College Democrats Jennifer West ’20 said she believes both candidates are well-positioned to take on Sununu in the general election, but also commented on the stylistic difference between the two.
“I think each candidate brought their own background and perspective to the issues in ways that manifested differently on the stage,” West said. “And it was interesting to see how that reflected in their answers.”
Vicki Abbott, a Marchand supporter, said after the event that she believes Marchand is the stronger candidate and more likely to win over independent voters.
“He has real plans,” Abbott said. “You can talk about generalities and you can boast about your past record, but unless you have a plan about what you will do in the future, you’re not going to win people over.”
Sharon Nordgren, a member of the New Hampshire House of Representatives representing Hanover, said she thinks Kelly’s experience and pragmatic vision will be more appealing to voters.
“She has to be realistic, and I think that’s what she is,” Nordgren said. “Plans sounds great, but if they aren't going — like raising the gas tax, sorry, that’s not going to happen. You have to be a little more practical.”
The winner of the primary, which is scheduled for Sept. 11, will likely face an uphill battle against Sununu, who currently enjoys relatively high approval ratings and name recognition following his first term in office. A recent Saint Anselm College poll found that Sununu has a 65 percent approval rating in the state, and other polling of hypothetical general election matchups show Sununu with a large lead against both Marchand and Kelly.
In New Hampshire, the governor serves a two-year term, and only one governor in the last 90 years has ever lost his or her first reelection. The Cook Political Report, a leading nonpartisan election handicapper, rates the 2018 election as “Likely Republican.”
This debate, however, occurred on friendly territory for the Democratic candidates: Hanover gave Sununu’s opponent in the 2016 election, Colin Van Ostern, his largest margin — 77 percent to 21 percent — of any town in the state.
Peter Charalambous contributed reporting.