National Republicans stunned by Sununu snub
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) shocked national Republicans Tuesday by publicly rejecting entreaties to challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) in next year’s midterm elections, delivering a setback to the GOP’s chances of putting another potentially competitive race on the board at a time when Republicans feel momentum at their back.
In a press conference at the state capital in Concord, announced with just a few hours’ notice, Sununu said he would run for a fourth two-year term as governor.
“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington, it’s to the citizens of New Hampshire,” Sununu told reporters. “I’d be honored to spend a few more years doing what I love with the people that I love.”
Sununu’s comments took Republicans by surprise: He said he had not informed Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) or National Republican Senatorial Committee Chairman Rick Scott (R-Fla.) of his decision, a fact confirmed by sources close to both leaders in Washington.
“As of this morning, I don’t think any high-level folks knew for 100 percent sure what he was doing,” one high-level Washington Republican told The Hill. “It was a very well-kept secret.”
Behind the scenes, Sununu’s advisers kept national Republicans at arm’s length. The governor asked national Republicans for space to consider his decision, several sources told The Hill.
The push to get Sununu off the sidelines intensified in the last week, after Virginia voters elected Glenn Youngkin (R) as the commonwealth’s next governor. Drawing a top-tier recruit into a critical Senate contest, some Republicans said, would have been a boost to the momentum the GOP already feels going into the 2022 midterm elections.
Sununu had seen, and spoken to, Scott as recently as this weekend, when both men were in Las Vegas attending the annual gathering of the Republican Jewish Coalition. He had traveled widely in recent months, to official events in Kentucky and a political event in California, signs that many interpreted that he was laying the groundwork for a national campaign.
“Everything he was doing looked like he was getting ready to run for Senate,” one top GOP aide said.
At the same time, national Democrats launched a major campaign to dissuade Sununu from running. In recent weeks, Democrats had attacked Sununu for signing a budget bill that included provisions that would restrict access to abortion.
Sununu said those advertisements had not influenced his decision not to run.
“They’ve all spent millions of dollars against me. Over $10 million they’ve spent in the past year and I’m not even running,” he said.
Sununu spoke with McConnell, Scott and several other senators about life in Washington as he considered a bid in recent months. On Tuesday, he said that several of those conversations with senators who had served as governor — he mentioned both Scott, a former governor of Florida, and Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah), who served as governor of Massachusetts, as well as former President George W. Bush — convinced him that a Senate career was not right for him.
“I got a pretty clear picture of what the next six years would be,” Sununu said. “Sitting in meeting after meeting, waiting for votes to happen, man, I like to get things done.”
His decision to sit out the race and to seek reelection, a year after winning a third term with 65 percent of the vote, likely dooms any Democratic chances of competing for a governorship they had held for a dozen years before Sununu won office.
It will also turn attention to a new roster of candidates who could give Hassan a strong challenge.
“Sen. Hassan continues to be among the most vulnerable Democrats on the ballot next year. She isn’t out of the woods yet,” said Jeff Grappone, a longtime New Hampshire Republican strategist who worked for former Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), the governor’s brother. “Hassan barely won in 2016 and there’s still a Senate pickup opportunity for the GOP in New Hampshire.”
Republican strategists in New Hampshire and Washington said former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R) was likely to receive a new round of entreaties to seek her old seat back, though it is not clear she is interested. Ayotte had been considering a run for governor if Sununu had run for Senate.
“She’s a tremendous individual and the state would be very lucky to have someone like that running,” Sununu said when asked about his conversations with Ayotte, a longtime ally.
Democrats celebrated Sununu’s decision, even as they acknowledged that Hassan could not rest easy over the next year.
“Sen. Hassan won her last race by 1,017 votes, and we know that no matter who emerges as the Republican nominee this is going to be a hard-fought race,” Aaron Jacobs, Hassan’s campaign manager, said in a statement. “Our campaign is ready for the challenge ahead.”
One prominent Republican, retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc (R), is already in the race. Bolduc, who has questioned the results of 2020 presidential election in a bid to win support from former President Trump, finished second in a Republican primary last year, claiming 42 percent of the vote.
Republicans may also turn to state Senate President Chuck Morse (R) or Frank Edelblut, the commissioner of the state Department of Education and a former state representative.
Sununu’s decision to stay out of the race has given those potential candidates a new urgency, Grappone said, as Hassan continues to add to an already stocked campaign account.
“Whoever gets in for Republicans is going to have to move quickly and ramp up fast,” Grappone said.
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