FILE - Kelly, Marchand

Former state Sen. Molly Kelly and former Portsmouth Mayor Steve Marchand are the Democratic candidates for governor in New Hampshire.

Steve Marchand was the first candidate of note to throw his hat in the ring for the Democratic nomination for governor of New Hampshire in this cycle, unveiling his campaign in the spring of 2017, just a few months after the former Portsmouth mayor’s failed bid for the nomination in the 2016 primary.

If Marchand was hoping his early announcement would give him a leg up over potential rivals, polling suggested that for some time, the strategy was having an effect. An April 2018 poll from Saint Anselm College’s New Hampshire Institute of Politics – conducted around the time that former state Sen. Molly Kelly entered the race – showed Marchand with a small lead in favorability ratings and a somewhat larger edge in name recognition.

But a late August poll from the institute shows that as Kelly has ramped up her campaign, she appears to have erased Marchand’s lead, and then some, in the race to see who will get to challenge incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu. The Democratic primary will take place Sept. 11.

“In the race to be the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, Molly Kelly has a small advantage in name recognition over rival Steve Marchand, and a more favorable image,” said Neil Levesque, the institute’s executive director. “As we head into the critical stretch run of the primary, the races are beginning to take shape as candidates differentiate themselves. It is likely that the September winners will emerge from the group of candidates that have begun to break away from the pack in terms of name recognition.”

The institute’s survey of 817 “randomly selected likely primary voters,” conducted over the course of Aug. 15 to 18, now shows Kelly leading Marchand in favorability, 35.6 percent to 28.1 percent.

When it comes to name recognition, the poll showed that Kelly had erased Marchand’s 8-point lead in April and now has a small edge, 63.1 percent to 59.8 percent.

Kelly also has a significant edge over Marchand when it comes to notable endorsements. She has the backing of both of New Hampshire’s Democratic U.S. senators, Jeanne Shaheen and Maggie Hassan, and Democratic U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster. Hassan was the last Democratic governor of the state, serving two terms from 2013-2017, and Shaheen was governor from 1997-2003.

In addition, groups such as EMILY’s List, Granite State Teamsters Union, the New Hampshire chapter of the National Education Association, the New Hampshire branch of the American Federation of Teachers and Planned Parenthood PAC have given Kelly their support.

Marchand picked up the endorsement of Somersworth Mayor Dana Hilliard in November. In mid-July, state Sen. Martha Hennessey, D-Hanover, who was one of Marchand’s most notable backers, switched her support to Kelly, though she emphasized that she still liked Marchand as a candidate.

“I endorsed Steve Marchand soon after he declared his candidacy,” Hennessy told WMUR.com. “Several months ago, after Molly Kelly announced her run for governor, I told Steve that I needed time to assess her candidacy. … I feel that I have done due diligence, and I very recently decided to support Molly in the primary.”

The two Democrats are virtually in lockstep when it comes to campaign positions, both embracing longtime party priorities such as abortion rights, gay rights and reducing enforcement of federal immigration policies. They’ve each sought to create daylight between their respective stances by accusing the other of not embracing these positions strongly enough, especially as each tried to claim the mantle of being more pro-abortion than the other.

Whether Kelly manages to translate her advantages into a primary victory or Marchand manages to recapture his early momentum, the victor on Sept. 11 will face a formidable challenge in trying to unseat a popular incumbent in November. Sununu does not have a primary challenger.

A July poll by Morning Consult showed Sununu as the fourth most popular governor in the nation with a 61 percent favorability rating and only 22 percent unfavorable. New Hampshire’s economy is seen as among the strongest in the U.S., with strong employment numbers and a track record of innovation.

The University of New Hampshire’s Granite State Poll of 501 randomly selected state residents, contacted by phone between Aug. 2 and 19, showed Sununu leading Kelly, 48 to 32 percent, when respondents were asked who they’d favor if that was the matchup in November. When asked about Sununu vs. Marchand, the incumbent Republican was favored 48 to 33 percent.

When it comes to recent fundraising efforts, reports indicate that Kelly is neck-and-neck with Sununu, with both well ahead of Marchand. Since June, Kelly has raised $176,990 to Sununu’s $153,520 and Kelly’s $53,044.

Sununu had the edge in cash on hand, with $527,417 to Kelly’s $353,140 and Marchand’s $41,878.

Republican Craig Benson was the last incumbent governor to lose a re-election campaign when he was defeated by John Lynch in 2004. Before Benson, a first-term incumbent hadn’t lost in New Hampshire since 1926.

Sununu, 43, was elected governor in 2016 and is the son of former Gov. John H. Sununu, who also served as White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush, and the brother of former U.S. Sen. John E. Sununu. He was a member of New Hampshire’s Executive Council, an executive branch voting body unique to New Hampshire, from 2011 to 2017.

Marchand, 44, was elected to the Portsmouth City Council in 2003 and served as mayor from 2005 to 2008. He ran for U.S. Senate in 2008 before bowing out in favor of Shaheen, and he lost the Democratic nomination for governor in 2016 to Colin Van Ostern, who in turn lost to Sununu in the general election.

Kelly, 68, was a member of the New Hampshire Senate from 2006 to 2016 and has a law degree from Franklin Pierce Law School.

New Hampshire, which prides itself on hosting the “first in the nation’ presidential primary every four years, is notoriously unpredictable when it comes to whether voters will favor Republicans or Democrats in high-profile elections. While both chambers of the state Legislature are controlled by Republicans, both U.S. senators and its two U.S. representatives are currently Democrats. Republicans hold a 3-2 edge on the state’s Executive Council.

Managing Editor

Delphine Luneau is a veteran journalist with more than 20 years of experience. She was the editor of Suburban Life Media when its flagship was named best weekly in Illinois, and she has worked at papers in South Carolina, Indiana, Idaho and New York.