The Election Lock of New Hampshire Governors

Incumbent governors don’t often lose

Illustration by Peter Noonan

There are only a few truisms in New Hampshire. One of them, “Live Free or Die,” will remain the state motto and creed. A second one, “New governors will automatically get a second term,” is grounded in history.

In 90 years, only one governor failed at his first reelection attempt. That was Republican Craig Benson, who lost to Democrat John Lynch in 2004. The last time any incumbent governor lost at all prior to Lynch’s election was 22 years earlier.

So, experience suggests that New Hampshire governors are basically assured reelection, and freshman governors especially so.

But when you actually drill down into these races, our history may not actually tell us a whole lot about the future. The consistent thread in those races wasn’t that each governor was especially awesome, or that the power of incumbency is that insurmountable. It was that their opponents weren’t that good, and they started their campaigns too late.

Not until 2018 has a credible opponent to a first-term governor started so early in building up a campaign. Former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, who ran unsuccessfully for the Democratic nomination in 2016, began his campaign in April 2017, just months after Republican governor Chris Sununu was sworn in for the first time.

New Hampshire and Vermont remain the only two states in the nation with two-year terms for governor. This is one reason why no one has gotten into the race as early as Marchand did. After all, how is an opponent supposed argue it is time for a change when change just happened weeks earlier?
Yet, by waiting to begin, the new governor gets a significant percentage of the two-year term to him or herself, increasing the likelihood that anyone willing to try for the office is a sacrificial lamb — a weak candidate that everyone knows will lose.

The last six governors who won their first reelection did so by an average of 32 percentage points (John Lynch won by 48 points). But what none of those elections had was a credible candidate that started early. Yes, when Lynch beat Benson he was a late entrant into the race, but Benson was seen as historically wrong for the job and businessman Lynch’s net worth proved exceptionally good at quickly making up ground.

Back to the contest in 2018: Incumbent governor Sununu has maintained an above-60 percent approval rating for the better part of a year. This number is in line with where other successful governors have been at this point. In other words, it is quite possible that Marchand will be another sacrificial lamb.

But at least someone is actually testing the theory that first-term governors get an automatic pass, largely because of how a two-year term handicaps the race in their favor.

Privately, many Democrats say that Sununu has made a lot of smart moves as governor. And the race itself will be defined by issues, personalities and the national political atmosphere — probably more so than by simply when the opponent entered the ring. But at least this election, one side isn’t just conceding the race before it’s finished.

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