Sununu’s seat in NH governor’s office a tall order for Democratic challenger Sherman

  • Democratic candidate for Governor Dr. Tom Sherman attended a meet and greet in Peterborough on Saturday, encouraging residents to get involved and out to vote in November. Monadnock Ledger-Transcript photos

  • Governor Chris Sununu atop Pac Monadnock Sept. 23 for the unveiling of a state historic marker and a celebration of revitalization work on the mountain.

Concord Monitor
Published: 11/2/2022 10:13:43 PM
Modified: 11/2/2022 10:13:34 PM

Every time Tom Sherman introduces himself to voters, he wants them to know two things.

The first is simple. It’s an introduction. He’s a 65-year-old gastroenterologist and father of three. He’s served as state senator for two terms and, prior to that, in the House for four years. He has a legislative record to prove it.

The second has nothing to do with him. Instead, he turns all attention to the man he is looking to unseat next week, Gov. Chris Sununu. He wants voters to think more critically about the governor’s actions — including signing an abortion ban as part of the state budget process, hampering solar energy growth and offering parents public money they can spend at private and religious schools.

Sherman has faced an uphill battle as Sununu remains popular with voters and enjoys far more name recognition as the son of a former governor and brother of a former U.S. senator

Sherman formally announced his campaign for governor in March. A month later, 71% of voters said they did not know enough about him to have an opinion on his candidacy, according to a UNH Survey Center poll.

With more than half of New Hampshire voters holding a favorable opinion of Sununu, the gubernatorial race posed a tough feat for Sherman.

“Sununu is by far the most popular elected official in New Hampshire, with a 62%-36% favorable image,” said Neil Levesque, the director of New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said about Saint Anslem College’s most recent poll released Tuesday. “Only 60% of voters have an opinion of Sherman, putting him in a difficult position as he tries to persuade voters in the closing days of this election.”

Yet despite the long road to the corner office in Concord, Sherman’s campaign has helped Democrats amplify key issues — from access to abortion to education funding.

“I feel like that’s a very consistent message across all of our caucuses, all of our candidates at the state level,” Sherman said. “Making sure we bring down costs, that we expand energy options and that we make sure that women are not put at risk by the Sununu abortion ban.”

Despite national party pressure for Sununu to challenge U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan for her seat in Washington, he announced last November that he would instead seek a fourth term as governor.

Given his popularity throughout the coronavirus pandemic, the hope was that he could help flip Hassan’s seat in a Republican quest to retake control of the Senate.

Instead, Sununu reaffirmed his commitment to New Hampshire.

“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington; it’s to the citizens of New Hampshire,” he said when announcing his gubernatorial reelection campaign.

Following his announcement, Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia ranked the open governor’s seat as a “Safe R.”

On Tuesday, it still held that ranking, when Sununu and Sherman faced off in their final debate before election day.

During the debate, Sununu reaffirmed his commitment to New Hampshire and pledged to serve the full two-year term if reelected.

“That commitment is absolutely there. I don’t want to go anywhere but be governor of New Hampshire,” he said.

Sununu’s reelection campaign has touted his accomplishments while in office. As governor, he says, he passed voluntary paid family medical leave, lower business taxes, increased education spending and promoted affordable housing development through a new InvestNH housing fund.

He also touted the success of the state. During his closing remarks in the debate, Sununu pointed to New Hampshire’s low poverty rate, the high quality of public school systems and commitments to public safety and personal freedoms.

“We are absolutely the envy of the nation,” he said.

Yet critics, like Sherman, also point to what they believe to be Sununu’s downfalls. He signed a bill banning abortion after the first 24 weeks of pregnancy as part of last year’s budget. The minimum wage remains at the federal standard of $7.25. More recently, Sherman blamed Sununu for the expiration of Emergency Rental Assistance Funds, which means the state will not receive the $67 million it requested this summer.

“People may lose their housing in the middle of winter. He had no plan for what to do with them to transition them off of federal assistance,” Sherman said in an interview with the Concord Monitor. “And now he has no plan for what to do with them now that there is no federal assistance.”

Sherman finds fault with Sununu for taking credit for federal money sent to New Hampshire by the all-Democratic congressional delegation while simultaneously criticizing them for contributing to inflation.

For many New Hampshire voters, a split ticket between state and federal office come Election Day is not unusual.

“Governors are CEOs in their own right, and they’re evaluated on a different basis,” said Andy Smith, the director of the UNH Survey Center. “The governor has a record of actual specific accomplishments. … They get credit for the economy when it’s good, blame when the economy’s bad.”

But if voters are upset about the economy or inflation, Sununu may remain untouched by their angst. Smith pointed to former Gov. John Lynch’s reelection in 2010, where he was the lone Democrat elected to statewide office in a year where Republicans prevailed across the nation. The same was true for Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who won her gubernatorial reelection campaign despite down-ballot Republican victories in 2000.

“You’ve seen that in New Hampshire, where governors are able to survive political waves that wipe out the rest of the party,” he said.

In September, the UNH Survey Center polled voters after the state primary. Sununu held an 18-point lead over Sherman.

One week before the election, the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College reaffirmed this lead with the exact same findings — 55% of voters would pick Sununu, 37% would vote for Sherman.

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