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Longtime New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner is facing a strong challenge to his re-election in the state legislature after House Democrats overwhelmingly voted to endorse a former gubernatorial candidate who has been campaigning for the job – inflaming partisan tensions and promising an eventful final push before the state’s Organization Day on December 5. The Concord Monitor has more:

Bill Gardner’s fighting to keep the job he’s held for 42 years.

And after an important test vote which served as a very loud wake-up call, it’s unlikely New Hampshire’s secretary of state will be getting much support from fellow Democrats as he runs for re-election to a 22nd term.

Democrats in the House of Representatives, meeting behind closed doors Thursday in their first caucus since they convincingly recaptured the chamber’s majority, handed Gardner a major vote of no confidence.

In a non-binding ballot, 179 state representatives supported 2016 Democratic gubernatorial nominee and former executive councilor Colin Van Ostern of Concord as their preferred nominee for secretary of state. Gardner received 23 votes, with former state lawmaker Peter Sullivan of Manchester grabbing seven votes. Sullivan dropped out of the race Friday.

Van Ostern’s campaign is raising some eyebrows – and hardening opposition:

Republicans, meanwhile, aren’t happy about it, and are rallying around Gardner, the longest-serving secretary of state in the country.

“We find it deeply concerning that a majority of House Democrats chose to support a proven partisan political operative over a lifelong public servant,” House Majority Leader Dick Hinch said.

He said Van Ostern raised and spent more than $200,000 to win the office with more than 100 donations from people outside of New Hampshire.

“We hear a lot about getting money out of politics, but this has injected money and politics into a non-political office,” Hinch said, pledging his support for Gardner.

“Republicans in the House will be standing with and voting for a person who has exhibited fairness and decency throughout his career in public service,” Hinch said. “Bill Gardner has proven to our state that he can do his job without partisan motivations and without the need to solicit donations from party activists.”

Van Ostern has aggressively defended his fundraising approach.

“To be clear, all the grassroots contributions that we received go towards staff and towards online organizing. We have not contributed to any candidates or party committees. We don’t take out ads or endorse candidates,” Van Ostern explained. “I get that it’s novel and it’s new, because no one’s run seriously in a couple of decades.”

SoS Gardner has increasingly been the source of frustration for state Democrats, who cite his support for bills they says restrict voting and his support for the now-disbanded Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity:

Among Gardner’s sins in the eyes of Democrats is his participation last year on President Donald Trump’s controversial voter integrity commission.

“I said I know some may never forgive me for having done that, but that it was better that New Hampshire be represented than not, and I was bringing the New Hampshire values and my values to that commission,” Gardner told reporters, sharing what he said to the Democratic caucus minutes earlier as he made his case for re-election.

“It’s better to be at the table than on the menu,” he added.

Gardner hosted a meeting of the commission, which was held just days after the panel’s vice chairman made unsubstantiated claims about the validity of the 2016 U.S. Senate election results in New Hampshire. At the meeting, Gardner defended the election results.

Gardner’s known nationally as one of the chief guardians of New Hampshire’s treasured century-long status as the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state. But his reputation among Democrats took a hit the past two years, thanks to Gardner’s participation on the now disbanded commission. Many Democrats are also angry over Gardner’s support for two GOP sponsored bills passed into law the past two years that tighten the state’s voter eligibility requirements, which they characterize as attempts at voter suppression.

Gardner defended his record in his comments to the Democratic lawmakers. He shared with reporters that he told the caucus that “the fact is we had the highest turnout of any midterm.”

And he said that 3,200 of the 6,000 election workers attended training sessions that were held leading up to the midterm elections.

Former four-term Democratic Gov. John Lynch praised Gardner and he introduced the secretary of state to the caucus meeting, which was closed to reporters.

Van Ostern and Sullivan also spoke and took questions from the representatives.

Van Ostern noted the overwhelming vote in his favor occurred on that same day 42 years earlier that Gardner first won support for the job.

“I think we need a more modern and accountable secretary of state’s office and we need to do a better job of protecting the rights of every voter, and every local official who helps make our elections work well,” Van Ostern said.

Despite Van Ostern’s strong showing, the race isn’t over yet – and both candidates will be pushing to lock up the votes they need by early December:

All 400 state representatives and 24 state senators will vote to either re-elect Gardner or choose one of his challengers, when they gather at the State House on Dec. 5 for Organization Day.

As of now, the math doesn’t add up for either Gardner or Van Ostern.

If all 424 state lawmakers show up, it will take 213 votes to win the secretary of state election.

If Gardner wins the backing of every GOP state representative and senator, he would stand at 176 votes. Add to that figure the 23 Democratic representatives who supported him and Gardner gets to 199. But he’s unlikely to land more than one or two votes among the 14 Democratic senators. That means he’ll need the backing of 13 or 14 of the 25 Democratic representatives who didn’t vote in the caucus ballot and the seven who voted for Sullivan.

If Van Ostern keeps the support of the 179 representatives who voted for him, plus a likely 12 or 13 state senators, he’ll still be a little more than 20 votes shy. Again, those Democratic representatives who didn’t take part in the secretary of state vote and those who supported Sullivan appear to be crucial to the final outcome.

Van Ostern, who ran unsuccessfully for governor against Chris Sununu, has repeatedly said that “it’s really important that this be a non-partisan office.”

The Democratic caucus non-binding vote for secretary of state was surrounded by a bit of controversy. The showdown came after lawmakers – on a voice vote – decided to amend caucus rules to allow for a vote to nominate a secretary of state candidate.

“Twenty-one years ago there was a lot of passion about not having caucus votes and they’ve never had it since,” explained Gardner, who said he was alerted to the possibility of a vote the night before the caucus meeting.

One reason such a party caucus vote for secretary of state hasn’t occurred for two decades was a lack of any challenge to Gardner.

Van Ostern told reporters that every contested race for secretary of state that has happened in the last half-century included a caucus vote.

Sullivan also criticized the caucus vote and the intentions of House Democrats.

“Yesterday’s results made it clear there is a near-total lack of interest in substantive electoral reform within the Democratic caucus,” Sullivan said. “It makes no sense to beat a horse.”

Gardner departed the State House on Thursday to continue overseeing ongoing election recounts.

He vowed to hold a forum before the Dec. 5 secretary of state election, where he said he and lawmakers can “go through these allegations and lay everything out on the table.”

Needless to say, a defeat for Bill Gardner would be significant given his tenure – and stature as the nation’s longest-serving Secretary of State. The next few weeks will reveal if Van Ostern’s support is merely a wake-up call or the beginning of the end of a remarkably long career in the Granite State. Stay tuned …