Feltes’ health care comments in Lebanon spark war of words with Sununu

  • Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, removes his face mask to speak at a press conference for his gubernatorial campaign at Colburn Park in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Feltes spoke about the need to protect the Affordable Care Act from Republican challenges. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

  • New Hampshire Sen. Dan Feltes, D-Concord, speaks during a press conference for his gubernatorial campaign at Colburn Park in Lebanon, N.H., Thursday, Oct. 15, 2020. Feltes was joined by Jim Murphy, a candidate for state representative from Hanover and former chief medical officer of New London Hospital, and Peter Hackett, a Dartmouth College theater professor whose family has faced health care challenges, to speak about protecting the Affordable Care Act. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 10/15/2020 10:06:42 PM
Modified: 10/15/2020 10:06:34 PM

LEBANON — Democratic gubernatorial candidate Dan Feltes and Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s campaigns traded barbs Thursday about the governor’s past statements regarding the Affordable Care Act and its future.

Feltes, a three-term state senator from Concord, attempted to tie Sununu to unpopular efforts to dismantle federal health care protections, framing the race as a choice between stability under the law known as Obamacare and the uncertainty of an insurance market without its protections.

Meanwhile, Sununu’s campaign highlighted past actions he’s taken to prop up the law and its benefits in the Granite State.

During a news conference in Colburn Park, Feltes said his Republican rival supports the Trump administration’s efforts to repeal the sweeping health care law, which goes before the Supreme Court later this year. If it were up to the governor, he argued, thousands of New Hampshire residents could lose access to Medicaid or be thrown off private insurance plans.

“With Chris Sununu and Donald Trump in office, the health care of hundreds of thousands of Granite Staters is on the line,” said Feltes, a former legal aid attorney.

The governor’s campaign quickly shot back, calling Feltes’ assertions “ridiculous” and tantamount to outright lies.

“These are more shameful claims utterly devoid of reality,” Sununu campaign spokesman Ben Vihstadt said in an email.

Sununu, who is wrapping up his second term, directed the Attorney General’s Office this year to join with 18 other states in a legal defense of the Affordable Care Act. He also reauthorized New Hampshire’s Medicaid expansion in 2017, spoke out against a federal bill that sought to repeal Obamacare that year, and signed into law a 2019 bill — sponsored by Feltes — that protects coverage for people with preexisting conditions.

Vihstadt went on to say that the governor has no role in the current Supreme Court confirmation proceedings of Judge Amy Coney Barrett, a critic of the 2012 high court decision that saved the Affordable Care Act by ruling that its individual mandate was a tax. (Congress later effectively repealed the individual mandate by reducing its penalty to $0 effective in 2019.)

In fact, Vihstadt pointed out, Sununu was one of four Republican governors — including Vermont Gov. Phil Scott — to refrain from signing a letter in support of Barrett’s nomination.

However, Feltes pointed to Sununu’s past statements about the health care law as signs of his true intentions.

Sununu ran in 2016 on a platform that was critical of the Affordable Care Act. He also in 2017 called for it to be “reformed” and “replaced with something that works for New Hampshire” while supporting a House bill that sought to do just that.

While Feltes’ press conference Thursday was called to discuss health care, there was little mention of his platform. Online, he promises to lower prescription drug costs, require hospitals to be more transparent with financial information and invest additional money in mental health and addiction treatment programs.

But when Feltes was asked about whether he would seek to transition the state to a single-payer model — he has said health care is a “basic human right” — or how New Hampshire should hedge against a possible repeal of the Affordable Care Act, the candidate pivoted back to critiques of Sununu and Trump.

“Trying to tie a governor to an unpopular president of his own party is time-honored campaign tactic,” said Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst and professor at Southern New Hampshire University.

“Feltes doing that is not particularly surprising,” he added. “I’ve seen that (strategy) pretty much any time the opportunity arises for a challenger to do that to an incumbent.”

A Real Clear Politics average of several recent New Hampshire polls shows Sununu currently running ahead by more than 20 percentage points, with the governor garnering 58% support compared to Feltes’ 35.5%. By comparison, Trump has only 42% support in the Granite State, 11 points behind former Vice President Joe Biden’s 53% support.

While tying the policies of president and governor of the same party may have aided challengers in the past, Sununu appears to be “widely capable” of withstanding the tactic, according to Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire.

The governor has a well-known name and has been “front and center,” leading the state’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic for months, Scala said.

New Hampshire’s governors also have a unique knack for building an identity based on job performance that often shields them from national politics, he said, pointing to former Democratic Gov. John Lynch’s ability to stay in office through past Republican takeovers of the Statehouse.

“Voters will tend to treat the governor differently than other elected officials, especially for federal office,” Scala said.

Spiliotes added that Sununu’s position is likely helped by his ability to distance himself from Trump without outright challenging the president.

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com.

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