Nation's longest-serving secretary of state faces challenge

CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — The nation's longest-serving secretary of state and guardian of New Hampshire's first-in-the-nation presidential primary is facing a serious challenger for the first time in decades — from within his own party.

Colin Van Ostern on Wednesday announced his campaign to unseat Secretary of State Bill Gardner, who has been in office for 42 years. Van Ostern, 39, is a former member of the Executive Council who lost the 2016 gubernatorial race to Republican Chris Sununu.

Gardner, 69, is known for ensuring New Hampshire retains its place at the start of the presidential nominating calendar, but he has faced harsh criticism recently from fellow Democrats for serving on President Donald Trump's commission on election fraud and for supporting Republican legislation to tighten voter registration rules.

Van Ostern said he has tremendous respect for Gardner's role in protecting the primary but there are other key issues more important than longevity.

"Our democracy is under new attacks today from corporate and political and foreign interests, and the best way we can preserve our primary for another 100 years is to bring new, needed energy and commitment to this office's other, equally important roles — like securing voter lists, increasing transparency, overseeing business services and protecting free and fair elections," Van Ostern said at a news conference.

The Legislature will elect the secretary of state in December, just before the start of the next two-year legislative session. While Gardner has faced about half a dozen challengers over the years, Van Ostern's plan to start a political committee that will aid candidates who share his views nine months before the vote is unprecedented.

In contrast, Gardner doesn't attend political events, endorse candidates or accept donations. He said he's never used the office for politics, arguing that doing so would destroy the role of the office and the public's trust in it.

For example, he described the more than 500 recounts he has overseen, including more than 20 that came down to one vote.

"People have to trust that this is a place that is going to be fair and equal for everybody, and if you lose that ... if you let it out, you never get it back," he said. "It's gone."

He also defended his role on the Republican president's voter fraud commission, which disbanded after asking states to provide public information from voter rolls, saying it was important to work with people he disagreed with and try to examine the issue. He argued that he shares many of the same overall goals of Democrats in terms of increasing voter turnout but the difference is in the "roadmap" to get there.

Van Ostern has the backing of some key Democrats, but Republicans currently hold majorities in the House and the Senate. New Hampshire Republican Party Chairwoman Jeanie Forrester called his campaign cynical and self-serving and said his election would be a disaster.