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N.H., R.I. hold primaries this week: Here are the races to watch

Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff/File 2017

In Rhode Island, incumbent Governor Gina Raimondo faces a serious challenge in the Democratic primary.

By Globe Staff 

The finale of New England’s primary election season is at hand: This week, New Hampshire and Rhode Island will be among the last states in the nation to pick major party nominees for the midterm elections.

Both states boast competitive primaries for governor, and in New Hampshire, the 11-way Democratic contest for the First Congressional District is a tossup.

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These races haven’t gotten much attention nationally, but they’re significant for locals and provide another layer of insight into the debates happening within each political party this year. Here’s a quick primer.

Wait, is New Hampshire voting on a Jewish holiday? And is Rhode Island voting on a Wednesday?

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, complicated the primary calendar in many states. Massachusetts held its primaries the day after Labor Day to prevent a conflict with the holiday, which began Sunday and ends at sundown on the 11th. New York will hold its elections on Thursday. Connecticut held its primary in August.

Rhode Island took a different route, deciding to hold its primary on Wednesday, Sept. 12, instead of the traditional Tuesday. New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, however, declined to part with tradition. Despite the holiday, he set the vote for Tuesday.

So what are the top races in both states?

In New Hampshire, all eyes are on the 11-way Democratic primary in the state’s First Congressional District. The district, which stretches from Manchester to Portsmouth to the Lakes Region, is currently represented by Democrat Carol Shea-Porter, who is retiring.

Two candidates lead the pack in advertising and fund-raising. Maura Sullivan, an Iraq war veteran and former Obama Administration official, moved to the state just few months before announcing her campaign. She is the Washington-establishment pick and has raised more money for Congress — nearly $2 million — than any other person in the history of the state. Her main rival is Executive Councilor Chris Pappas, a darling of the New Hampshire Democratic establishment.

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The other nine candidates are almost all running to the left of Sullivan and Pappas, and, the thinking goes, will divvy the progressive side of the electorate. An effort among the liberal-leaning candidates to drop out and back one of the leading contenders fizzled a few weeks back.

Predicting the outcome of this race is as difficult as it was last week to foretell the winner of last week’s Democratic primary in the Massachusetts Third Congressional District. (A week later, that race, which featured 10 candidates, still isn’t settled.)

In Rhode Island, all the chatter is about the race for governor.

First-term Democratic incumbent Gina Raimondo faces a serious challenge from the left by former secretary of state Matt Brown. The contentious campaign even featured a fight between Raimondo, the state’s first female governor, and feminist pioneer Gloria Steinem, who supports Brown, over abortion rights. (At issue: the state’s decision to offer some health-insurance plans that don’t cover abortions on HealthSource RI, the state’s public heath-insurance exchange.)

Raimondo is not especially popular with the liberal base of her party, but she has the cash advantage: In all, she will have spent about $4 million on this race, compared with Brown’s $400,000. Raimondo has refused to debate Brown and the third Democrat in the race, former state representative Spencer Dickinson.

The front-runner for the Republican gubernatorial nomination, Cranston Mayor Allan Fung, won’t debate his opponents, either. His leading opponent is House Republican Leader Patricia Morgan, who is running as the conservative favorite. Although Rhode Island is a deep blue state, don’t assume that a Republican can’t unseat the Democratic incumbent. Raimondo was elected with just 41 percent of the vote, in a three-way contest. Her approval ratings haven’t improved much beyond that number. Polls show a tie between Raimondo and Fung .

OK, so those races are getting all the attention, but are there any that deserve more notice?

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Totally.

In New Hampshire there are two other races of note. Democrats will pick a nominee to take on first-term Republican Governor Chris Sununu. And Republicans will choose a candidate to represent them in the First Congressional District race.

The two Democratic candidates for New Hampshire governor are former state senator Molly Kelly and former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand. It’s hard to think of any candidate in recent state history who has, in a competitive race, enjoyed the kind of establishment support that Kelly has. She’s run the table on every political endorsement and received donations from national groups like the pro-women, pro-abortion rights group EMILY’s List.

Yet she hasn’t been able to shake off Marchand, who is running a serious grassroots campaign. Marchand has held multiple events a day for the past 18 months. And at a moment when the party’s left flank is energized by its antipathy for President Trump and his supporters in Congress, Marchand has staked out an aggressively progressive position on every issue.

The Republican race for New Hampshire’s First District is getting little attention this year, but it has featured some noteworthy headlines. State Senator Andy Sanborn is seen as a leading contender, even though he was accused of sexually harrassing staffers at the State House. (An investigation by the state attorney general’s office cleared him of any criminal wrongdoing.)

His main challenger is a former police chief and liquor commission official, Eddie Edwards, who would be the first African-American to represent the state in Congress.

Both candidates boast of their loyalty to President Trump — and Edwards even had Trump lawyer Rudy Giuliani campaign for him — but the president hasn’t weighed in on the contest.

Finally, an overlooked race in Rhode Island features a narrative common in Democratic primaries this season, in which a progressive upstart tries to unseat a more conservative incumbent. Lieutenant Governor Dan McKee, 67, faces a vigorous challenger in state Representative Aaron Regunberg, 28, an activist with union backing.

So what’s going to happen?

Who knows? Neither state has seen any recent, credible primary polls — none that have been released publicly, at any rate. New Hampshire’s First District race could be especially surprising because there are so many candidates with similar politics and local ties.

Analysts in both states say higher-than-expected voter turnout could be the last minute “x-factor” that leads to a surprise or two on election night.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com
Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell. Click here to subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics.