Gov. John Lynch answered the most talked-about Granite State political question this year — would he run for a fifth term?
The answer was no. He reflected at a press conference last week at Northwest Elementary School in Manchester that the fourth-graders he met with when he was first elected governor in 2004 are graduating from high school this year.
“I think it’s time for the next generation of leadership...,” Lynch said.
Lynch always made time to meet with students. He remarked at the press conference that he would always sneak out of meetings to talk with students.
“I find those conversations more energizing than all the cups of coffee in the world,” Lynch said.
Political officials from both parties commended Lynch on his service and wished him well.
But with Lynch walking away, so goes Democrats’ best chance at keeping the corner office. He remained widely popular even after a contentious reelection bid in 2010. Polls had Lynch’s favorability ratings remaining high in the face of a GOP-dominated legislature and Executive Council.
For the first time in some years, New Hampshire will have an open race for governor. It looks like there will be primaries on each side of the political aisle. And so it’s on to the next most talked-about question in New Hampshire politics — who is going to run for governor in 2012?
Taking stock of the field
Ovide Lamontagne, most recently a Senate candidate, made it official on Monday. It had been widely expected for some time that Lamontagne would run. Lamontagne narrowly lost to Kelly Ayotte in the GOP primary in 2010 and then quickly turned around and supported her in the general election. That move has won him considerable points and, to some degree, kingmaker status in the New Hampshire political arena. Lamontagne lost a gubernatorial bid in 1996 and a congressional run in 1992. Right out of the gate, Lamontagne offered a list of 200 supporters from across the state.
The Democratic strategy with regard to Lamontagne was obvious right off the bat: tie him to the tea party. The state party released a statement after Lamontagne announced his candidacy, saying he is “in lock step with the Republican Tea Party legislature.”
Kevin Smith, the executive director of Cornerstone Research’s New Hampshire chapter, appeared close to announcing a decision. Smith emerged as a potential player a few months ago. Cornerstone Research could be a powerful launching pad.
John Stephen, who gave Lynch a run for his money in 2010, could be readying for another run as well. The former prosecutor and commissioner of the Department of Health and Human Services has lost twice in bids for Congress, in addition to his loss to Lynch last year.
Media reports indicated state Sen. Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro, may have been interested in running as well, but Bradley said last week he would not run for governor in 2012.
Lamontagne would presumably be the frontrunner, but now that it’s officially an open seat, who knows who will show up to run? What about a run by either of the state’s Congressmen, Charlie Bass or Frank Guinta? Or what about a run by former senator John Sununu? For that matter, anybody with the last name Sununu could probably make a strong run.
On the Democratic side, former state senator Maggie Hassan looks to be close to announcing her bid. That’s been expected for some time. It was somewhat of a surprise that Hassan lost her Senate seat in 2010.
Former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand is a possibility as well, as is Mark Connolly, former director of the state Bureau of Securities Regulation. Marchand would probably run as a centrist candidate in the mold of Lynch, analysts have said.
Reports indicated current Portsmouth Mayor Thomas Ferrini and former state senator Jackie Cilley are possibilities as well.
Gary Hirshberg, CEO of Stonyfield Yogurt, is another name to watch. Analysts have pointed out he’d probably be able to largely self-fund a campaign.
It would appear Republicans have more immediate name recognition than their Democratic counterparts in this race, but Lynch, in announcing his intentions 16 months out from the election, is giving everyone sufficient time to get to know all the candidates.
In 2010, Republican primaries, notably the Senate primary, were more or less races to the right, with the most conservative candidates winning. That might not be the case this time around, but the climate doesn’t appear conducive to Democratic candidates who run hard to the left. Lynch was successful as a centrist who presented himself as sort of a non-politician. But are there other Democratic candidates out there who can do that?
Political analyst Dean Spiliotes wrote on his blog, NHPoliticalCapital.com, that “By the time of the landmark Democratic victories of 2006 and 2008, however, that paradigm [of centrist tendencies in the Democratic party] had largely been supplanted by progressives who brought a much more explicitly liberal partisan bent to Democratic politics in the Granite State, one which worked well for them until 2010.”
A course down the center
Lynch, who always said he tried to keep partisanship out of the debate, has crafted his own story as a centrist. He isn’t easily tied to the Democratic message. In fact, he didn’t mention anything about the Democratic Party in his announcement. That non-partisan image likely helped him in 2010, when nearly every other Democrat lost. It was clear plenty of voters picked Lynch and then checked off “R”s the rest of the way down the ballot.
Perhaps Lynch’s absence from the ballot could impact President Barack Obama in New Hampshire. If the name of the game is for Republicans to tie Democrats to Obama, that might have been a tough sell with Lynch, whose stances sometimes put him at odds with the Democratic apparatus.
Lynch was never really the voice of the Democratic party. Sure, he held the top job, but he wasn’t waving the Democratic banner at every turn — in fact he rarely waved the banner.
While the Republican candidates are almost certainly glad not to have to run against Lynch, the Democratic field is probably more difficult to gauge right now. Lynch will have been governor for eight years in 2012 — there would have been items on his record the GOP could have exploited. Not that it can’t with the Democratic candidates, but those areas might not be as obvious yet. Whom do Republican candidates criticize?
Lynch promised to keep working hard over the next 16 months. He pointed to his work on education, particularly the state’s efforts to reduce the high school dropout rate. He said he wants to keep working to get the dropout rate to zero.
“The journey is not over here,” Lynch said at the press conference. “There is plenty of work to do.”
And while he called being governor the best job in the world, and said he had the passion and energy to keep doing the job for a long time, “democracy needs new leaders,” Lynch said.
After the press conferences and the handshakes and hugs around the room, Lynch stopped to talk with the class of four-graders seated cross-legged on the floor.
It seemed fitting.