Sununu’s popular handling of pandemic proves too much for Feltes to overcome

Monitor staff
Published: 11/4/2020 6:01:36 PM
Modified: 11/4/2020 6:01:26 PM

There was no beating an incumbent governor who appeared regularly on television – sometimes three times a week – for months before the election assuring residents the state was doing everything it could to fight the coronavirus and keep them safe.

Add in the $1.25 billion in federal cash that Gov Chris Sununu had the unique and nearly unilateral ability to direct to areas of the state and economy hardest hit by the virus and Democrat Dan Feltes had a nearly insurmountable political hill to climb.

On Tuesday night, Gov. Chris Sununu secured a third term as New Hampshire governor, besting State Senate Majority Leader Feltes early in the evening with strong performances in a number of traditionally-Democratic towns and areas.

“We know that (the election) can leave bad feelings on one side or the other, but the main message is, those feelings end tonight,” Sununu said in a speech from the Doubletree Hilton Hotel, at an indoor victory party where cocktails, hors d’oeuvre and more than a few maskless attendees flowed.

“Tomorrow we come together as neighbors in our communities, understanding we still have a lot of challenges ahead, and if we don’t come together one way or the other, and we don’t leave the political stuff behind, we’re not going to get anywhere.”

Sununu’s win was so convincing, the Associated Press called the race at about 8:30 p.m. with less that 6 percent of the state’s votes tallied. Sununu even beat Feltes in Concord, the Democratic-leaning capital city where Feltes lives.

From the outset, Feltes attempted to run a policy-focused campaign. He sought to connect his bid for governor directly to his legislative priorities as a three-term senator, from the implementation of a mandatory paid family and medical leave program, to an increase in the state’s minimum wage to a slate of clean energy policies that promoted solar energy.

Sununu, meanwhile, ran less on new legislative ideas and more on leadership style.

When he first filed for re-election, the governor had initially centered his campaign around the state’s economy. But then COVID-19 hit the state, and the two campaigns changed for good.

Sununu quickly took command of the pandemic. He declared a state of emergency, giving him more or less carte blanche to pass executive orders without the approval of the Legislature. He asserted control over New Hampshire’s share of coronavirus aid, passed by Congress in March – a staggering $1.25 billion sum for a state with an annual budget of just over $6 billion.

He stayed front and center in the news media, with almost daily press conferences, each an hour long and each carried live on television and radio. Sununu’s administrators revealed new coronavirus infections and outbreaks, but the governor announced funding programs directed everywhere from daycares to small business relief to farms.

The effect was a multi-layered blitz of activity throughout the course of the pandemic that largely kept Sununu in the spotlight, and put Feltes in the role of critic from afar.

Democrats – and Feltes – sought to wrestle back control of that narrative. They sued the governor over the coronavirus spending, arguing he needed to get legislative approval for his funding priorities. A judge disagreed.

Feltes and Democratic lawmakers also passed a flurry of bills intended to respond to the coronavirus on their own terms, such as bills to extend the moratorium on evictions, impose external oversight on nursing homes, and add COVID protections to the Family and Medical Leave Act. But Sununu vetoed most of them, declaring some unnecessary due to his executive orders and others objectionable on ideological grounds, such as raising the minimum wage or passing sweeping election reforms.

In the end, the governor’s strategy paid off. For months, his presence and the programs he passed earned high marks from voters; poll after poll showed over 70% of Granite Staters approved of his handling of the pandemic.

It was an advantage that Feltes, for all the Democratic Party energy the presidential race supplied in New Hampshire, couldn’t overcome. With low name recognition and an oppositional style to the governor that didn’t quite catch on with independent voters, Feltes failed to clear the hurdles to succeed.

In a statement to supporters Tuesday evening, Feltes called it “the honor of my life to be your nominee for Governor.

“The work continues, it must; and we need you to continue to raise the issues and values that matter to you, your family, and our communities,” Feltes said.

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