• Paul Steinhauser

Nation’s longest serving secretary of state keeps his job in second ballot re-election victory

Gardner in the Secretary of State’s office before the vote

CONCORD, New Hampshire – It went into a second round, and it was shrouded in a bit of confusion, but longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner narrowly won an extremely hard fought re-election to serve another two years as the state’s top election official.

Gardner, known nationally as one of the chief guardians of New Hampshire’s cherished century old status as first-in-the-nation presidential primary, on Wednesday defeated challenger and fellow Democrat Colin Van Ostern 209-205 on the second ballot of voting by state lawmakers.

“I’m very, very, grateful for those of you who let this happen,” Gardner said as he addressed a joint session of the New Hampshire House of Representatives and Senate after winning re-election to a 22nd two-year term in office.

Gardner, 70, is the longest serving secretary of state in the country. Van Ostern, the 39-year old former two-term executive councilor and 2016 Democratic nominee for governor who ran on a platform of modernization and accountability, wasn’t even born when Gardner was first elected to the office in 1976.

“I want to keep New Hampshire as the easiest state to vote in the country, like it has been. And I want to keep us at the top of the country for turnout, like it has been. And I want to make sure our presidential primary remains where it has been,” Gardner told reporters following his re-election victory.

Asked by this reporter if his narrow victory was a wakeup call, Gardner defiantly answered that “I campaigned for a very short period of time. I don’t think this would have been the same if I had campaigned anywhere near like what he did.”

Van Ostern announced his bid in March and raised and spent more than $200,000 in an effort to defeat the secretary of state. Gardner, who didn’t begin to actively campaign for re-election until late last month, after the secretary of state’s office was finished overseeing nearly 20 recounts from legislative races in the midterm elections.

“Obviously I’m disappointed in the outcome. But what an incredible exercise in democracy this has been. And I’m really proud that we put a spotlight on issues around protecting voting rights and local control and modernizing an office. I think healthy competition is good for democracy,” Van Ostern said. And he highlighted that he was “proud to get within a vote of Bill Gardner. No one’s beat him in 42 years. He’s a legend in our politics and in our state.”

Gardner’s impeccable reputation among state lawmakers has taken a hit with Democrats the past two years, thanks to his participation on President Donald Trump’s controversial and now disbanded voter integrity commission. Many Democrats were also very angry over Gardner’s support for two GOP sponsored bills signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu that tightened the state’s voter eligibility requirements, which they characterize as voter suppression measures.

Last month Gardner suffered a setback, as state House Democrats, meeting behind closed doors in their first caucus since they convincingly recaptured the chamber’s majority on Nov. 6, handed Gardner a major vote of no confidence. In a non-binding ballot, the representatives overwhelmingly supported Van Ostern over Gardner. Republicans, on the other hand, were uniformly backing the secretary of state. The problem for Gardner – following the midterms there were a lot less GOP lawmakers in the state legislature, as the Democrats also grabbed the majority in the state Senate.

The election was the first time in more than three decades that Gardner faced a serious challenge. And lawmakers faced unchartered waters after the results of the first round of secret ballot voting, where Gardner led Van Ostern 208-207, with one vote going to someone other than the two candidates.

With tradition dictating that 50% plus one vote of those cast was needed to win, Gardner was one vote shy of the 209 needed for victory. But the secretary of state’s allies attempted to contest the rules and argued that Gardner was the winner of the first ballot due to his plurality.

Gardner later told reporters that “I won both ballots. Both times.” After Gardner’s re-election, the governor declared that “it was a great victory for an individual who’s served the state proudly for many decades.” And Sununu, who defeated Van Ostern in the 2016 gubernatorial election, added that “everyone in New Hampshire should stand up and rejoice that politics and money did not drive the result today.”

In his victory speech, Gardner invited the lawmakers input. “I’m just down the hall. Come in. I welcome any ideas, even modern ideas,” he said. Asked about Gardner’s comment, Van Oster said “I know we put a spotlight on important issues on how we can strengthen the office and I think that modernization is one of them.”

Last week Gardner hinted to this reporter that if re-elected, it could be his swan song as secretary of state. “It could be,” Gardner he said. “I have a special reason why I want to do this one,” Gardner explained, referring this year’s re-election bid. “I wouldn’t have the same reason for the next one,” he added.

That ‘special reason’ is the upcoming 2020 celebration of New Hampshire’s status as the first-in-the nation primary. The Granite State held its first presidential primary in 1916, but it wasn’t until four years later that the state’s contest led off the presidential nominating calendar. But he made no mention of any retirement talk during his victory speech. Van Ostern was noncommittal when asked if he would run again for secretary of state in two years.

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