NH gov race pits Sununu against Statehouse opponent Feltes

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — Two men who've spent years opposing each other at the Statehouse will be in opposite columns on the ballot Tuesday in the race for New Hampshire's governor.

Republican incumbent Chris Sununu, who is seeking a third two-year term, faces Democrat Dan Feltes, the state Senate majority leader whose bills he repeatedly vetoed. While Sununu portrays himself as an experienced manager who has safeguarded public health and the economy, Feltes casts himself as the true fighter for working families.

But the coronavirus pandemic has made it even more difficult than usual for a relatively unknown challenger to take on a popular governor, said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. Sununu has been front-and-center in public view since March, and recent polls have shown him enjoying both a comfortable lead over Feltes and widespread, bipartisan support for his handling of the pandemic.

“People look to the governor in times of emergency. This year, we’ve had this rolling, long-term emergency situation,” Scala said. “I think Sununu’s biggest challenge is not the election, but whether he can actually lengthen his coattails enough to bring in state legislators."

Feltes, a former legal aid lawyer, often contrasts his upbringing in a blue-collar family with Sununu, whose political family includes a father who was governor in the 1980s and a brother who served in Congress. His family owns Waterville Valley ski area. Feltes also has relentlessly tried to link Sununu to President Donald Trump, reminding voters that Sununu once called himself “a Trump guy through and through.”

Sununu defends his family’s record of public service and said he was proud to work as the ski area’s general manager before being elected to the Executive Council and later governor. In his view, the race comes down to management skills and experience.

“Sen. Feltes has no management experience whatsoever. Literally, none,” Sununu said in an interview. He said his business experience, on the other hand, was important for getting the economy back on track. And he brushed off attempts to tie him to Trump, who narrowly lost New Hampshire to Hillary Clinton in 2016, saying it's no surprise that a Republican governor supports a Republican president. He sought to focus the race instead on his pandemic response.

Democrats "don’t want to talk about the success the state has had. They don’t want to talk about our successful economy, how we’ve handled the pandemic or any of that because they know we’ve done a very, very good job here,” he said.

Feltes, however, has criticized Sununu's response to the pandemic, saying he hasn't done enough to protect vulnerable elderly residents or schoolchildren. And he argues he would be a better leader than Sununu on health care issues that could fall to the states now that Amy Coney Barrett has been confirmed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though New Hampshire joined a multi-state effort to defend the Affordable Care Act at Sununu’s direction earlier this year, Feltes calls that too little, too late, and points to Sununu’s previous statements opposing the Obama-era health care law.

“Chris Sununu has a 10-plus year history of supporting repealing Obamacare without a replacement,” Feltes said in an interview. New Hampshire needs a governor who supports maintaining and strengthening the law, he said. “At the end of the day, the question for Granite State voters is, whether they be Republican, Democrat or independent, is: Who do you trust on health care?”

Though Sununu has been ahead in the polls, the candidates were closer when it comes to fundraising. As of Oct. 14, Feltes had raised about $1.4 million compared to Sununu’s $1.7 million, and Feltes took in more after the Sept. 8 primary than Sununu did. But he also spent more, and Sununu reported having about six times as much money left to spend in the final weeks of the campaign.