CONCORD, N.H. — New Hampshire Republicans expected a nail-biter in the four-way gubernatorial primary — but few expected political newcomer Frank Edelblut to be one of the final players.
A first-term state representative with little statewide name recognition, Edelblut came within roughly 1,000 votes —about 34,000 to 33,000 — of nabbing the party’s nod from Chris Sununu, a member of one of New Hampshire’s most well-known political families. The race was so close that Sununu wasn’t officially declared the winner until Wednesday afternoon, when Edelblut announced he would not seek a recount. Leading into primary day, Sununu’s greatest challenge appeared to be from Manchester Mayor Ted Gatsas, who raised the most money and enjoyed decent name recognition.
But Edelblut’s supporters say they weren’t surprised by the results. They attribute his near victory to his hard work, outsider status and conservative credentials, proving that conservative and libertarian-leaning Republicans remain a powerful voting bloc within the party.
“I think that a strong message was sent with this election, even though Frank didn’t come out where we wanted him too,” Republican Rep. Victoria Sullivan said. “This was the base coming out and saying, hey, we’re not going to take it anymore, and names don’t matter anymore — we want principle.”
Sununu faces Democrat Colin Van Ostern in the Nov. 8 general election.
Edelblut cast himself as a political outsider, pointing to his business career, where he started a company that grew to 800 employees. He promised he wouldn’t be beholden to lobbyists or special interests and would work with anyone to find solutions. But he also brought strong conservative views to the race; Edelblut is against abortion rights and pledged to radically change public education to offer more choices. He and his wife home-schooled their seven children.
It’s not unprecedented for political outsiders to surprise in primaries. In 2015 in Mississippi, truck driver Robert Gray, who spent little on his campaign and didn’t even vote for himself in the primary, defeated Vicki Slater, a well-connected trial attorney, to win the Democratic nomination for governor. He went on to lose the general election by a wide margin in the deeply conservative state. And in Maryland in 2014, Republican Larry Hogan won by campaigning as a change agent who’d never held political office, though he had political connections.
Edelblut, for his part, campaigned aggressively for more than a year. And he benefited from his status as an underdog. While Gatsas, Sununu and state Sen. Jeanie Forrester attacked one another, Edelblut largely stayed above the fray.
“Frank was kind of just growing, growing, growing off to the side,” Republican Rep. Tammy Simmons said.
In a low turnout primary — just 113,000 people voted in the Republican primary — capturing the most loyal party members proved critical for Edelblut. Now, Sununu must win them over. Many Republicans were angered this year by Sununu’s support for a state contract with Planned Parenthood on the executive council. Edelblut is already backing Sununu and pledged to campaign on his behalf.
Sununu, for his part, said he shares the values of his Republican base.
“I stand for the strong conservative values, lowercase ‘libertarian’ issues of low taxes, limited government, local control of schools, personal responsibility,” he told The Associated Press. “I have a proven record on it.”
As for what lies in his own political future, Edelblut says he’s focused on helping Sununu win in November and making his supporters’ voices heard.
“I’m going work with Chris to make sure that those conservative voices are heard through the election process,” he said.
Associated Press writers Emily Wagster Pettus in Jackson, Mississippi, and Brian Witte in Annapolis, Maryland, contributed.