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Bill Gardner, keeper of the N.H. primary, to retire after 45 years as secretary of state

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, center, announced he will step down from office Monday.Holly Ramer/Associated Press

New Hampshire Secretary of State William M. Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the nation, announced on Monday that he will resign in the coming days ― a development that could cause waves far beyond the borders of the small New England state.

Gardner, 73, has long been considered something of a keeper of New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, the quadrennial contest that floods the state with presidential hopefuls and national media. He was first elected to the job in 1976 — the same election cycle when a new state law took effect requiring that New Hampshire hold the first presidential primary at least seven days before any state held a similar contest. The secretary of state was given the sole authority to set the date, a structure unique in American politics.

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“We all have lives with incredible adventures, whether at [the] time we realize it or not,” Gardner, who will hand over the job to his longtime deputy, said Monday. “I do realize it and will be forever grateful for the adventures of serving the people of our state.”

In the 45 years he held the role, Gardner became synonymous with the state’s presidential primary. Every four years, he has been the subject of fascination among national political reporters and operatives as he kept the date of the New Hampshire primary a mystery until just a few months before it took place to prevent any other state from swooping in and being first.

But to others, he was simply following state law. In his remarks Monday, Gardner spoke about his singular role in making sure the state’s presidential primary went first.

“The law... doesn’t give you a roadmap. The law doesn’t tell you how to do it,” Gardner told reporters from his state house office, where hundreds of presidential candidates have filed to place their name on the New Hampshire primary ballot over the years.

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News of his retirement sparked a swift reaction from political leaders in New Hampshire and beyond.

“Granite Staters owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Secretary of State Bill Gardner,” Governor Chris Sununu said in a statement Monday.

The reason for his departure, Gardner said, was simply that it was time to retire. He said there were no health or political concerns. He noted that in the four-year presidential cycle, this was the right time given that the presidential primary season has yet to really begin, and there weren’t any immediate challenges to the state’s first-in-the-nation status.

Indeed, more than a dozen potential Republican presidential candidates visited the state last year, and the Republican National Committee doesn’t appear to be deviating from the plan of having Iowa and New Hampshire begin the 2024 presidential nominating process. Democrats, on the other hand, were primed to make changes in 2020, but the COVID-19 pandemic struck, forcing a virtual nominating convention that declined to take up the matter. Nearly two years after a bungled Iowa caucus, the status quo has been preserved.

The news of Gardner’s retirement comes at a time of heightened awareness of the importance of secretaries of state around the nation and is premised on the idea that he can pass off his role to his deputy, Dave Scanlan. Gardner is officially a Democrat, while Scanlan was once elected as a Republican state representative. However, Gardner has enjoyed more political support from Republicans than Democrats and Scanlan has a decades-long reputation as a by-the-book, nonpartisan elections administrator.

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That said, if Scanlan is installed it remains unclear whether he would run for a full term in December, following the midterm elections. And even less clear is whether he would win, given that there could be multiple candidates. Whoever wins in December would not just oversee the state’s next presidential primary but also be asked to certify election results from the 2024 general election in a hotly contested swing state.

Gardner evolved from a New Hampshire statesman above reproach to a controversial figure in the last five years after he agreed to serve on a voting commission President Donald Trump set up in 2017. Widely dismissed as a sham to promote the baseless claim that widespread voter fraud existed in the 2016 election, the commission dissolved after just two meetings.

But one meeting was held, at Gardner’s invitation, in New Hampshire. Critics said that Gardner allowed the White House to use him to legitimize the commission given his seniority as an elections official and as the most high-profile Democrat to serve on the panel.

After that, Gardner faced the toughest of his 22 reelections in 2018. In New Hampshire, the secretary of state is elected by a joint session of the state House and the state Senate. Gardner beat back a challenge from a former Democratic nominee for governor by a single vote. Following the 2020 elections, Republicans dominated the New Hampshire legislature, so no Democrat bothered to wage a serious campaign against him.

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Since then, Gardner has gone on to be very critical of the state Democratic delegation in Congress, particularly for their support of voting rights bills that he contends would federalize elections and threaten the New Hampshire primary — though there is no language in the bills to do that.

In an hour-long news conference Monday, Gardner talked about history and his plans in retirement to write and advocate for the state’s presidential primary, a subject he has already coauthored a book about.

“I’ve made many friends during the years, and I will sorely miss that personal connection,” Gardner said. “The so many extraordinary experiences that New Hampshire voters and elected officials have given me over the years.”


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.