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CONCORD, NH – A small but persistent thorn in Gov. Chris Sununu’s side grew bigger this week, after a conservative stalwart filed against him for governor in opposition to his COVID-19 policies.
Karen Testerman, a Franklin city councilor and longtime political figure, will challenge Sununu for governor in the Republican primary, she announced this week.
Her focus: Sununu’s decision to shut down portions of the New Hampshire economy in response to the coronavirus.
“The primary thing that drives my decision to run is that this governor is acting against his oath of office,” Testerman said in an interview Friday. “He doesn’t have the authority to tell literally every citizen in the state of New Hampshire that they are essential or non-essential. He doesn’t have the authority to say that everyone should stay in.”
Testerman says the state should never have mandated that businesses close, which she says had brought about avoidable economic implosion. Instead, Sununu should have given voluntary guidelines and let businesses decide, she said.
“People in New Hampshire are caring people, compassionate people,” she said. They work hard. They’re incredibly creative. If there’s a problem, they’re going to work to stop it. They want to take care of New Hampshire.”
The effect of shutting some services but not others, Testerman argued, was an unequal playing field.
“I think he’s overstepped his boundaries,” Testerman said. “Just looking at the whole pandemic situation. Picking and choosing his winners and losers? Picking and choosing who’s essential and non-essential? Those are not things that the governor should be doing.”
In launching her bid, Testerman is seeking to tap into mounting opposition among New Hampshire conservatives to the stay at home order, which Sununu enacted as a means to slow social interaction and limit the spread of the virus.
Opponents on the right have pointed to the state’s record unemployment numbers and a rash of business and restaurant closures as evidence that the economic destruction has outpaced the need for the lockdown. Sununu, meanwhile, has pointed to overwhelming numbers of COVID-19 cases in Massachusetts and the slow pace of improvement in New Hampshire to justify the stay at home order.
Sununu has enjoyed high approval ratings throughout the COVID-19 crisis. But conservative dissent has been constant, too. A series of “Reopen New Hampshire” rallies have brought Republican House representatives into direct opposition with Sununu.
And at a special session of the New Hampshire House Thursday at the University of New Hampshire, that dissent was on display. A handful of Republicans proposed to pare back Sununu’s authority under the state of emergency, floating a resolution that would end the executive orders stopping businesses from opening.
Rep. Kevin Verville, a Deerfield Republican, was among the supporters of the resolution. He was driven, he said, by constituent calls.
“There’s been an increasing disappointment with the rate at which we’ve chosen to open the state back up,” Verville said in an interview Friday. “I know that the increasing message, the ever louder, ever more voluminous in number message that I’ve been getting from constituents is that people have lost their businesses, people are still in serious fear of losing their businesses, and that’s a direct result of the state closing businesses down.”
Verville did not say whether he would vote against Sununu in the Sept. 8 state primary. And he acknowledged that the governor had faced difficult political calculus driving his decisions. But he said Testerman’s candidacy was a direct result of a feeling of alienation.
“Mrs. Testerman is there to sort of give voice to that crowd, which honestly doesn’t feel like they’re being heard,” he said.
Still, Thursday’s vote also demonstrated the potential political limits to the angst against the governor’s order. The proposal, by Rep. Andrew Prout, garnered only 57 votes, with 280 representatives of both parties opposed.
Testerman has a long record as a social conservative, helping found the state advocacy group Cornerstone. And she holds some views that could complicate her bid for moderate voters.
In 2018, she broke from the state Republican Party and resigned as chairwoman of the Merrimack County Republican Committee over disagreements on policies around same-sex marriage and gay conversion therapy.
At the time, Testerman disagreed with Gov. Chris Sununu’s 2018 decision to sign a bill that would ban the use of child conversion therapy – a discredited process that attempts to convert children from being gay to being straight. She opposed then-Republican National Committeewoman Juliana Bergeron’s 2015 decision to sign onto an amicus brief in defense of same-sex marriage in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court, as well as the decision of Steve Duprey to attend a Planned Parenthood fundraiser, WMUR reported at the time.
On Friday, Testerman said she still holds those views. She remains anti-abortion, opposes same-sex marriage, and supports the availability of conversation therapy for children, arguing parents should have the right to choose it for their children, she said.
“The party platform says that marriage is between one man and one woman,” she said. “And I support that.”
Testerman said she also opposes efforts in recent years to expand gender identity protections.
“In my opinion, God made man and God made woman, and the idea that there’s a gender and there is some confusion – those are mental health problems,” she said. “That again, is something that needs to be left up to the parents of those children to deal with. Once an adult is an adult, whatever they choose to do is fine.”
Testerman said her social conservatism is based in her understanding of the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” in the U.S. Declaration of Independence. “Those are God-given rights,” she said. “It’s not up to me to advocate against them or tear them up; it’s up to me to uphold those.”
And she said she would not change those stances simply to win an election.
“I am not a politician,” she said. “A politician would do that.”
In seeking the state’s highest office, Testerman is vying to take power at a time of great financial difficulty. Plummeting state revenues from business and meals and rooms taxes are expected to take a wide toll on state finances, likely leading to deep cuts.
Testerman, who identifies as a social conservative, said she would rely on the suggestions of economic advisors on how to move the state forward, without elaborating.
Despite Testerman’s candidacy, which she officially filed Wednesday, the state Republican party continued to throw support behind the incumbent governor Friday.
“We have had the greatest advocate for the New Hampshire advantage in the corner office the last four years, and New Hampshire wants two more years of Governor Chris Sununu’s leadership,” the party posted from its official Twitter account Friday.
Testerman also faces an extreme financial disadvantage. As of December 2019, Sununu had raised $687,420 in total, outpacing his Democratic opponents. The next filing deadline is June 17, when fundraising for candidates over the last six months will be revealed.
For Testerman, the decision to jump in the race was made relatively recently.
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