In an election cycle filled with competitive Democratic congressional primaries, intraparty gubernatorial races have received less attention.
But New Hampshire’s Democratic primary for governor on Tuesday is one of the last chances this year for an activist in the mold of independent Sen. Bernie Sanders of neighboring Vermont to nab a win.
Sanders has endorsed Andru Volinsky, an attorney, environmentalist and education activist, in his race against Dan Feltes, New Hampshire’s state Senate majority leader, for the party’s gubernatorial nomination.
The winner of Tuesday’s contest will go on to face Republican Gov. Chris Sununu in November.
“My vision for New Hampshire is one where children can have a quality education no matter where they live, where seniors are not forced out of their homes because they cannot pay their property taxes, where we can build affordable housing and we can welcome young families and working families and a vision that allows small businesses to create jobs and grow broadly across the state,” Volinsky told HuffPost.
Feltes, a former legal aid attorney, believes he is best equipped to take on Sununu thanks to the battles he has waged against the governor as a leader in the state legislature. Sununu has vetoed a number of progressive bills passed by the Democratic-controlled legislature, including proposals to raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2023 and provide paid family and medical leave.
“We need to get out of this mess in a way that works for working people and working families, not just corporate special interests and those at the top,” Feltes, who has emphasized his working-class upbringing in campaign material, told HuffPost. “That’s who Chris Sununu has looked out for. My entire life has been much different.”
Volinsky, who is also endorsed by the youth-led climate action group, the Sunrise Movement, has sought to distinguish himself from Feltes by highlighting what he says are three key differences. Volinsky has ruled out accepting corporate political action committee money, opposed plans for a natural gas pipeline that a utility company tried to build, and refused to sign a pledge not to raise broad-based taxes of the kind that New Hampshire currently lacks.
New Hampshire has neither a personal income tax nor a sales tax, forcing it to rely heavily on property taxes to fund public services. It’s a situation that Volinsky and other progressive critics consider unsustainable. He wants to legalize marijuana in the state and tax its sale to fund public education.
“The No. 1 problem in this state is our over-reliance on the property tax,” Volinsky said. “I’m the only candidate talking about it and willing to challenge it.”
The fight for more adequate and equitable school funding is something of a career-long crusade for Volinsky, who was the lead attorney in a 1990s lawsuit that the Claremont school district brought against New Hampshire arguing that the state had failed to meet its constitutional obligation to the school district’s students. The state responded by increasing aid to school districts, but deep inequities between property-rich and property-poor districts persist.
In a bid to undercut Volinsky’s progressive credentials, Feltes has focused on Volinsky’s work as a corporate attorney in recent years. “If you’re going to go up against corporate-funded Chris Sununu, you’d probably rather have a legal aid lawyer than a corporate attorney in that fight,” Feltes said.
Feltes, who also supports legalizing marijuana, prefers to tackle the state’s revenue problems by closing tax loopholes.
He also disputes the charge that he has accepted any funding from corporate PACs or limited liability corporations that Granite State donors use to circumvent individual contribution limits. He has received the endorsement of the Democratic anti-corruption group End Citizens United and introduced legislation to close the state’s LLC loophole.
But before Feltes formally began running for governor, his political action committee did accept a $500 contribution from Liberty Utilities, the company whose pipeline he supported building, as well as a host of LLCs.
Asked about his support for a pipeline, Feltes said, “There is no proposed pipeline.” (Liberty Utilities indeed withdrew its proposal in August.)
Regardless of who wins on Tuesday, the Democratic nominee is liable to have an uphill battle against Sununu, the son of former New Hampshire governor John Sununu.
A University of New Hampshire poll that showed Volinsky with a 2-point lead over Feltes also found that state residents continue to view Sununu positively. The governor has a net favorability rating of 33 percentage points and soundly trounces both men in a hypothetical matchup, according to the survey.
In New Hampshire, where gubernatorial terms last two years, voters have already signaled their approval of Sununu’s performance. After first winning the top post in 2016, Sununu was reelected to a second term in 2018.