Sununu seen as top recruit in GOP bid to reclaim Senate

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R)
Getty Images/Madeline Monroe

Pressure is mounting for New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) to challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) for her seat in next year’s midterm elections as Republicans seek to take back control of the Senate in 2022.

Washington Republicans have voiced their appetite for Sununu to run as Hassan faces her first reelection battle as a senator.

Sununu sailed to reelection as governor in 2020, winning roughly 65 percent of the vote, despite former President Trump losing the state by 7 points. Roughly seven months later, the governor’s approval rating remains high, with a recent University of New Hampshire survey putting it at 69 percent.

Republicans say that Sununu’s high approval rating, coupled with his broad appeal to independent and partisan voters, could be an asset for them in the midterms, where they need to flip just one seat to gain a 51-49 edge over Democrats in the upper chamber.

“If Gov. Sununu decides to run for Senate, I think he would be the No. 1 Republican recruit in the country,” said veteran New Hampshire GOP strategist Jim Merrill.

Prior to his post as governor, Sununu served on New Hampshire’s Executive Council and has a background working in engineering and business. Sununu’s family is somewhat of a political dynasty in the Granite State, with his father serving as the state’s governor for most of the 1980s and his brother serving as a U.S. senator and congressman.

Sununu has received praise for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic, most recently for the vaccine rollout in the state. Figures released from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) earlier this month showed the Granite State leading the nation in vaccine distribution.

But the governor’s approval rating has ticked down amid his decision to allow the state’s mask mandate to expire. The same UNH survey released last week showed Sununu’s approval rating on his handling of the pandemic dropping from 72 percent to 65 percent.

The poll came out prior to new guidance from the CDC saying Americans could forgo wearing masks outdoors in uncrowded spaces.

Strategists say a potential Senate candidacy from Sununu could help map a path for the GOP in a post-Trump world.

“He is a uniquely unifying Republican figure in New Hampshire, and I think someone who has created a successful model as we think about the Republican Party moving forward throughout the country,” Merrill said.

But it’s unclear what kind of role those in the Trump wing of the party, and even the former president himself, would play in a potential Sununu Senate run.

Some say that Trump could end up playing a major part in the race if he makes a decision by 2022 on whether he will run for president again.

“It’s entirely possible that you would see a Trump visit to New Hampshire before the race,” said veteran New Hampshire Republican operative Lauren Zelt.

Sununu said last year that he and Trump have different communication styles, but he voiced his support for Trump on issues like the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement and tax cuts.

“I know there are a lot of people that supported and still support Trump, and I am one of them,” said Kate Day, the former chair of the Cheshire County, N.H., Republicans. “I thought his policies were much more important than the personality.”

But Sununu broke ranks with Trump after the Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol, releasing a statement saying Trump’s “rhetoric and actions contributed to the insurrection.”

“He’s done a good job of toeing the line in ensuring that New Hampshire is first and national party allegiances are second, which is something New Hampshire voters will want to see,” Zelt said.

Democrats say Sununu would open himself up to attacks on a number of fronts in a Senate race, including his handling of an investigation into a coronavirus outbreak at a New Hampshire veterans’ home and his ties to his family’s past business dealings.

“There’s a lot to talk about with respect to Sununu and his record and I think that’s where the focus should be,” said former New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairwoman Kathy Sullivan.

Hassan narrowly defeated former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) in 2016. Sununu won the governor’s race on the same ballot, demonstrating the political independence of the state’s voters.

Hassan stands to be a formidable opponent no matter who she faces off against in 2022. The senator raised nearly $3 million in the first quarter of 2021, bringing her cash on hand total to $4.4 million.

“The political cemetery is filled with folks who underestimated Maggie Hassan,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley.

But Republicans say Hassan will be tied to Democratic leadership in Washington going into 2022, painting her as a member of the far left.

National Republicans have labeled President Biden’s ambitious agenda, including his wide-ranging infrastructure and jobs plans, as ultra-progressive. Some GOP strategists suggest that if Republicans employ tactics similar to those they used after the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, they will score seats down the ballot, like they did more than a decade ago.

“I think it’s really possible that the same thing could happen next year and if it does, Hassan’s in big trouble,” Zelt said.

Polling shows that a Hassan-Sununu race stands to be tight. A UNH survey released in February showed Sununu leading Hassan 48 percent to 46 percent, within the margin of error.

A Morning Consult tracking poll shows an even wider gap in their approval ratings. Seventy-three percent of New Hampshire voters said they approved of Sununu, while 55 percent said they approved of Hassan.

Whether Sununu will run or not remains an open question. The governor addressed the speculation on Tuesday during an interview with Chris Ryan on “New Hampshire Today.”

“Washington is a really tough place. It’s not very pleasant. I know I could do well there, but I don’t know if it would do me well,” Sununu said.

Tags Chris Sununu Donald Trump Joe Biden Kelly Ayotte Maggie Hassan

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