Bill Gardner, longest serving secretary of state in the nation, announces his retirement

Bill Gardner's served as New Hampshire secretary of state since 1976, has repeatedly fought to protect the state's lead-off presidential primary position

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CONCORD, New Hampshire – After nearly a half a century in office, the chief protector of New Hampshire's lead off presidential primary position, and the longest serving Secretary of State in the nation, is calling it quits.

"In the coming days I will be stepping down," New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner announced on Monday.

The 73-year-old Gardner was first elected to the post in 1976, and the former Democratic state representative has been reelected every two years by both Democratic and Republican controlled state legislatures.

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One of Gardner’s top tasks has been making sure New Hampshire maintains its century-old position as the first state to hold a primary in the presidential nominating calendar. It’s been a quadrennial fight for Gardner for over four decades - but it’s a battle he’s never lost.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, center, announces he will step down from office during a news conference, Monday Jan. 3, 2022 at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. Gardner is the nation's longest-serving Secretary of State. From left are Senior Deputy Sect. of State Robert Ambrose, Gardner and Deputy Sect. of State David Scanlan. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer)

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, center, announces he will step down from office during a news conference, Monday Jan. 3, 2022 at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H. Gardner is the nation's longest-serving Secretary of State. From left are Senior Deputy Sect. of State Robert Ambrose, Gardner and Deputy Sect. of State David Scanlan. (AP Photo/Holly Ramer) (AP)

As dictated by state law, New Hampshire must hold its primary "7 days or more immediately preceding the date on which any other state shall hold a similar election." 

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And Gardner, as Secretary of State, has been the New Hampshire primary's leading guardian – thanks to his authority to set the date of the primary. He's wielded that power a few times over the years to move up the date of the primary to ward off threats from other states aiming to move to the top of the presidential nominating calendar.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, with then-Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden as Biden files his papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot, on Nov. 8, 2019, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, with then-Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden as Biden files his papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot, on Nov. 8, 2019, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H (Fox News )

Gardner enjoyed bipartisan backing for decades.

But he came under fire in recent years from state Democrats for his participation in then President Donald Trump’s commission on voter fraud. 

And his support in recent years for bills passed by GOP state lawmakers and signed into law by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu that tightened voting access rules in New Hampshire also angered many Democrats.

Gardner faced his most difficult reelection in decades in 2018, winning another two-year term by narrowly defeating on the second ballot former Democratic executive councilor and gubernatorial nominee Colin Van Ostern. He was unopposed two years later as he won his final reelection.

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In recent months, Gardner's spoken out in opposition to the push by President Biden and House and Senate Democrats - including New Hampshire's all-Democratic congressional delegation - to pass a sweeping election reform bill that would give the federal government more say in how states conduct their federal elections.

Gardner has argued that if the bill became law, it could potentially threaten New Hampshire's status as the first presidential primary state.

FILE— New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, left, talks with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as Trump files his papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H.  (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File)

FILE— New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner, left, talks with Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump as Trump files his papers to be on the nation's earliest presidential primary ballot, Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2015, at the Statehouse in Concord, N.H.  (AP Photo/Jim Cole, File) (AP )

But in announcing his retirement, Gardner received bipartisan praise.

Sununu, in a statement, emphasized that "for decades, Bill Gardner has fiercely protected New Hampshire’s First-in-the-Nation presidential primary and overseen our elections that are truly a point of pride for our state -- always open, fair, accessible and accurate."

And Donna Soucy, the state Senate Democratic leader, noted that Gardner "has helped shape New Hampshire’s nationwide reputation for the unparalleled integrity and security of our elections."

Spotlighting his passion protect his state's primary position and its electoral reputation, Gardner said "I love telling the New Hampshire story."

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan review the ballot count during an election recount, in Concord, New Hampshire in 2018.

New Hampshire Secretary of State Bill Gardner and deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan review the ballot count during an election recount, in Concord, New Hampshire in 2018. (Fox News)

Gardner announced that deputy Secretary of State Dave Scanlan, his longtime deputy, would be succeeding him.

He noted that "arrangements have been made for the constitutional deputy Dave Scanlan to take the oath of office."

Scanlan, a former GOP state representative, will serve the remainder of Gardner's term and will likely seek a full two-year term in December when the newly elected state legislature will hold their next scheduled vote for Secretary of State.

Gardner argued that his retirement doesn’t mean the Granite State will be any less aggressive about defending its lead-off primary position.

He told reporters that "it’s not a bad day" for the state’s status. "Our primary is stronger every four years, because every time we have one it makes it stronger."

"There is no reason to think that this primary is in any more difficult position than it has been."

Pointing to moves by other states to leapfrog New Hampshire - including a threat in the 2024 cycle by Nevada - Gardner explained that "there will be challenges. They’ll find new ways to attempt [it], but it should be okay."

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Gardner said that health concerns were not behind his decision. He said that the time was right to step down, noting its "a smooth time to do this" between election cycles. 

"It's just time," he added.

"I will be forever grateful for the adventure of serving the people of our state in our State House," Gardner said. "I know the office which I leave will be in good hands."