(CNN)New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, an ardent defender of his state's first-in-the-nation presidential primary status, narrowly held off a challenger Wednesday to win re-election to the post he's held since 1976.
New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner wins re-election after fierce challenge
Gardner defeated Colin Van Ostern, a Democrat who argued Gardner had legitimized unproven GOP claims of voter fraud, 209 to 205, on the second ballot cast by a state legislature that had been sworn in hours earlier.
The race drew national attention because of Gardner's unique role in presidential politics. He has the authority to set New Hampshire's primary date and has held off other states' efforts to move their primaries ahead of the Granite State's for decades.
New Hampshire lawmakers choose the secretary of state -- and while Gardner is nominally a Democrat, he'd been re-elected to the post for 40 years, largely without serious opposition.
But Gardner faced an intense backlash among Democrats over his decision to participate in President Donald Trump's commission that sought -- but did not find -- evidence to support the President's unproven claims of widespread voter fraud.
The presence of such a universally respected Democratic state elections chief on the commission led to complaints that Gardner was legitimizing a process that Democrats believed was established merely to assuage the President's ego. The Democratic National Committee called on Gardner to step down from what it called a "sham" commission.
At a September 2017 commission meeting in Manchester, Gardner defended his decision to participate, pointing to New Hampshire's role in the founding of the nation and saying that "we hold the first-in-the-nation primary, and we have a proud tradition of civic participation and responsibility."
"New Hampshire people aren't accustomed to walking away or stepping down from their civic duty. And I will not, either," Gardner said.
Early in 2017, Gardner had criticized Trump's claim that voters had been bused into New Hampshire, a swing state, from Massachusetts, a solidly Democratic state.
"We have never gotten any proof about buses showing up at polling places," Gardner told The Boston Globe. "It's not in a private place. It's a public place."
Also contributing to the Democratic backlash against Gardner was his support for a law -- later blocked in court -- that would have tightened residency requirements, including forcing college students to become permanent residents of New Hampshire to vote in the state.
Democratic lawmakers who had taken majority control of both chambers of New Hampshire's legislature in the midterm elections voted in caucus in November by a massive margin -- 179 to 23 -- to back Van Ostern, the party's 2016 gubernatorial nominee, over Gardner for secretary of state this year. Former state lawmaker Peter Sullivan, who has since dropped out of the race, got seven votes in caucus. But the caucus vote was non-binding.
Republicans, meanwhile, argued that ousting Gardner in favor of a more partisan figure would risk the party's first-in-the-nation primary status.
"I hope he heard the concerns expressed and views his re-election as an opportunity to both modernize the Secretary of State's office, bringing more accountability and transparency to our elections, and to fight for all eligible voters' right to cast a ballot, particularly in the face of efforts to restrict this basic right," New Hampshire Democratic Chairman Ray Buckley said in a statement after Wednesday's vote.