Politics

Bill Gardner, ‘keeper of the N.H. primary,’ may be poised for a fall, thanks to Trump

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (left) watched in November 2015 as then-candidate Donald Trump filled out his papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot.
Jim Cole/Associated Press/File
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner (left) watched in November 2015 as then-candidate Donald Trump filled out his papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot.

America’s longest-serving state secretary of state and four-decade New Hampshire fixture is in the political battle of his life. But the question of whether Bill Gardner can hold on to his job next week is bigger than the fate of one politician. Some say it may also open the door for a challenge to the state’s ironclad grip on the nation’s first presidential primary, which makes this one small contest worth watching.

Over his 42 years in office, Gardner, 70, has earned the title “keeper of the New Hampshire primary,” for his steadfast — sometimes even cagey — efforts to ensure that the nation’s first primary is held there.

New Hampshire is one of just three states where the secretary of state is elected by the Legislature. Gardner has kept that title across 10 presidential cycles. He’s a Democrat, yet never had a reputation for being partisan as much as being a diehard primary defender, which is part of why he hadn’t seen a challenger since 1984.

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But on Dec. 5, a newly elected New Hampshire Legislature will convene and decide whether Gardner should be given a 22nd two-year term that would grant him the right to oversee the 2020 presidential contest, a little over a year away.

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He’s considered the underdog.

That’s because Gardner last year joined the Trump administration’s now-defunct but deeply controversial voter fraud commission, which was criticized for trying to investigate long-debunked claims of massive voter fraud as a way to restrict who could vote.

Gardner still defends his role on the commission, saying that it was intended as an official channel to look into voter fraud, before it officially disbanded in early January amid controversy. His told reporters, “It’s better to be at the table than on the menu.”

But Democrats fumed. All four members of the state’s all-Democratic delegation to Congress last year called on him to resign from the commission. Maine’s Democratic Secretary of State Matt Dunlap also served on the group, but he quickly grew weary and eventually even sued the group over its call that states give voter data to the federal government. (Gardner agreed to hand over the data but was sued by the ACLU and others, and the commission dissolved before information was passed over.)

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Even with all that controversy, Gardner may still have been reelected. After all, he hadn’t had a challenger in almost 35 years.

But then two things happened: First, a strong challenger emerged, the 2016 Democratic nominee for governor Colin Van Ostern. Second, the same Democrats who were mad at Gardner for joining the Trump commission retook the majorities in the New Hampshire House and Senate. Suddenly, Gardner losing has become a real possibility.

Gardner needs a simple majority of 213 votes of the 424 members of the joint House and Senate to win. During a test vote of just the House Democratic caucus, Van Ostern received 179 votes, Gardner just 23, and a third candidate, former state representative Peter Sullivan, 7 votes.

Sullivan subsequently dropped out. He shared with the Globe that he, like many people in the state, figures that the vote will be close when you factor in Republican votes for Gardner and the 24 votes from the state Senate, but he thinks Gardner will ultimately fall short.

“The crazy thing is that there are more people who elect a Wolfeboro select board member, but this is viewed as one of the most important and expensive races in a generation,” Sullivan said.

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Indeed, Van Ostern has raised nearly a quarter-million dollars for the race, while Gardner has said it would be inappropriate to raise money.

Gardner over the years was known for taking extreme positions in his efforts to defend the state’s first-in-the-nation status, such as holding the state’s primary in the calendar year ahead of the election and not announcing the date of the primary until two months ahead of time.

Other states were often thought to have shied away from challenges, knowing it would be hard to topple New Hampshire.

Leading up to the 1984 election, national Democratic leaders — including a California Democratic Party chair named Nancy Pelosi — traveled to Concord to demand that Gardner give California the first primary or New Hampshire delegates wouldn’t be seated at the national convention held in San Francisco. He said no and he prevailed.

Without Gardner at the helm of the state’s election decisions, it’s possible that other states might feel emboldened to test the mettle of the new guy. That could put New Hampshire — whose identity as a state is inextricably tied to the primary — in position for a major political moment.

Democrats who oppose Gardner say it wasn’t just that he served on Trump’s commission and didn’t do enough to defend the state against the administration’s inaccurate claims that there was massive voter fraud in the state, but that it fit into a pattern of what they say are Gardner’s tendencies to back voter suppression efforts.

In recent years, Gardner has increasingly acted on his fervent belief that voter ID laws, and other measures that increase the burden of proof on a voter to show they are a resident, inspire more confidence in the system and therefore increase voter turnout. That position is at odds with where most Democrats stand.

Add to that Gardner’s decision to tell New Hampshire communities they must still hold town meetings and voting days during a blizzard and even sending out ballots this year that mislabeled candidates’ parties or in some cases left names off the ballots entirely, and the opposition has gained ammunition.

“Bill Gardner will forever be this huge figure in New Hampshire history and I understand the weight of it all when I vote against him,” said state Senator David Watters, a Democrat, a former professor, and coauthor of the Encyclopedia of New England. “But it is clearly time.”

Watters’s stance was echoed by others in the Legislature.

Meanwhile, Republicans like Governor Chris Sununu have rallied behind Gardner, forgoing putting up their own candidate.

“Gardner has long earned the trust of Republicans because of the nonpartisan way he has run the office,” state Republican National Committeeman Steve Duprey said. “Republicans have had the State House majorities for 30 of the last 40-something years, so if we wanted him replaced, we would have done that years ago. But this should be a place without partisanship.”

This is the main line of criticism Gardner supporters have used against Van Ostern: that he will make the office overtly political in a way they argue Gardner never did, even when he joined the Trump voter commission. Van Ostern is a former political operative and the youngest Democratic nominee for governor the state has seen in decades. Where Gardner may be viewed as too traditional or taking a few questionable positions, Van Ostern is seen as ambitious and as potentially using the office as a stepping stone.

In a rebuke to Van Ostern, five former governors wrote a public letter of support for Gardner. The last line said, “Sadly, the effort to replace Secretary of State Bill Gardner is not about new ideas or forward thinking. It’s about politics — plain and simple.”

As a result, some say Van Ostern may not be the same steadfast defender of the primary that Gardner was. New Hampshire Republican Party Chairman Wayne MacDonald went as far as to say Van Ostern “represents a significant threat to our quickly approaching first-in-the-nation primary.”

But with so many in the Legislature leaning against Gardner, all the letters in the world may not be enough to save him.

In an interview, Van Ostern pledged to not run for higher office any time soon should he win and said the main thrust of the reforms he’d like to implement has more to do with bringing office operations into the modern era, particularly when it comes to vital records and securities and business registration.

“I want a competent secretary of state’s office and one that also upholds our traditions of voter access, and I intend to do that,” Van Ostern said. And, of course, he pledged to do what it takes to keep the first-in-the-nation primary.

In 2011, after New Hampshire successfully fended off a challenge to the presidential primary from Nevada, the hashtag #BillGardnerFacts trended nationally on Twitter. And in a nod to Gardner’s role in the victory, journalists and a bipartisan array of national political figures had fun envisioning Gardner’s supposed mythological powers. They joked that it seemed he could control the weather and had once instructed the Founding Fathers that July Fourth was an appropriate date to sign the Declaration of Independence.

Back then, even Van Ostern chimed in with his own take on Gardner’s cult status, tweeting, “Bill Gardner’s brother was the Old Man of the Mountain.”

But let’s remember that even the Old Man of the Mountain ultimately fell.