The Race (?) for NH's Governor

This year's race for governor a bit like a box of chocolates

Illustration by Peter Noonan

In six months New Hampshire will elect a new governor and most people have no idea who that could be. The governor's race is remarkable because it's the most wide-open race in a generation and lacks a single recognizable figure wanting the state's top job.

After serving longer than any governor in modern state history, Democratic Gov. John Lynch announced in September that he would not seek a fifth term. After that, one candidate, Ovide Lamontagne, announced he would run for the seat. In the six months following only a trickle of three other candidates - Republican former State Representative Kevin Smith and former Democratic State Senators Maggie Hassan and Jackie Cilley - have announced they were interested. According to a recent WMUR Granite State Poll, none of these candidates had any major name recognition. And no one has aired a single television advertisement. (During the last open seat for governor in 2002 political ads began the year before.)

Being governor of New Hampshire has its pros and cons. No one has ever used the position as a launching pad to become president, but a few have gone on to become White House chiefs of staff or Senators. The job itself doesn't pay much and has basically no power to do much of anything other than maintain the status quo.

"It's possible the job just isn't attractive this year even though it seems to be up for the taking."

Yet for its residents who is governor matters. It sets a tone and an identity. Only two governors since 1968 were natives of the state - appropriate given that 60 percent of state residents aren't natives either. Only two governors in state history have been female, and the first of them only served for a short period. Most have been fiscal conservatives or at least set that tone.

New Hampshire has the largest number of Statehouse-elected officials in the country. There are 424 people who are currently elected to make state policy yet, at this writing, none of them has come forward to actually put their money where their mouth was during the session.

It's possible the job just isn't attractive this year even though it seems to be up for the taking.

Of course, following Lynch, the most popular governor in state history, is not an easy task. Second, the state constitution doesn't make the position powerful.To even change office décor the next governor must ask permission of the five-member Executive Council. Third, the national economy is still in a slump. Everyone would like to be a governor during boom times when you could both cut taxes and increase spending on popular programs. It is not so attractive to manage the state during rough fiscal times. Fourth, a candidate for governor's fate may be more determined by what happens in the presidential race than in their own. If Barack Obama wins or loses a swing state like New Hampshire that has a big impact on state politics.

Still, leading our little state is important, an accomplishment, and one for the history books.

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