Sununu announcement hands Democrats lifeline

President Biden just got a lifeline from the state where he once suffered a big loss: New Hampshire.

Republican Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision to forgo a Senate bid against Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) gave Democrats some much needed optimism in the midst of President Biden’s sinking poll numbers, a major electoral defeat, and a still-uncertain social-spending package that has to make it through a divided Congress.

“A lot of shoes fell today,” said Jim Demers, a lobbyist and former Democratic state representative in New Hampshire. “For the next several weeks, as Republicans are scrambling to find a candidate, it gives [Hassan] a chance to own the discussion out there.”

“It’s definitely a game changer,” he said.

The prospect of a Senate run by a Republican respected across party lines had for months plagued anxious Democrats scrambling to strategize around how to protect a thin majority. That fear only intensified as political problems piled up for the Biden administration, including a blow in Virginia, a near-loss in a “safe” statewide New Jersey contest, and a publicly dysfunctional intraparty dynamic on Capitol Hill.

What would have likely been a close match-up had caused Democrats to worry the governor’s stature as part of a political dynasty and current steady standing could be enough to oust Hassan and help hand the Senate majority over to the GOP. 

Biden’s previously shaky footing in New Hampshire, where he came in last among the major presidential primary candidates in 2020, didn’t help assuage those concerns.

On Tuesday, Democrats finally got some relief.

“It’s important,” said Democratic pollster Molly Murphy. “[T]his does help combat the idea that coming out of Virginia and New Jersey that Republicans have big races for the taking.”

Sununu’s announcement that he would not attempt a Senate bid in Washington, D.C., stunned politicos who eyed his movements towards the upper chamber over the past year.

They’ve seen his approval ratings jump up over his early handling of COVID-19, when he balanced social distancing, mask and vaccine recommendations with the idea of personal liberty, playing into the state’s libertarian streak.

He alluded to that progress in unveiling his decision to stay put in Concord. 

“I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down, end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results,” Sununu said during a televised press conference.

The announcement comes as Democrats are sweating their thin majorities in the House and Senate and as Biden’s ability to bounce back from a series of domestic problems — from rising gas price tags and supply chain shortages to an uncertain fate for his budget package — has created a hazy view of what the next year could look like.

The devastating defeat of former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D), a top Biden ally, in Virginia and a near loss by Gov. Phil Murphy (D) in New Jersey has further complicated Democrats’ down-ballot calculus and blunted their momentum. 

Only 43 percent approve of the job Biden is doing so far in office, compared to 52 percent who disapprove, according to a recent aggregate tallied by Real Clear Politics

With the midterms now less than a year away, Democrats finally got a much-needed break.

“Sununu was the most formidable potential candidate that Sen. Hassan could have faced,” Demers said. “Everyone has let out a sigh of relief.”

“It puts Democrats feeling a lot better today than they did yesterday,” he said.

After the news broke, the University of Virginia Center for Politics changed its rating of the gubernatorial race in New Hampshire from “lean” Republican to “safe” Republican and kept the rating for the Senate race at “lean” Democratic.

That could allow Democrats to focus their efforts on states where they’re defending uncertain Senate seats, including Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. And while New Hampshire is certainly not expected to fall to the back burner, the party will not have to expend the resources it otherwise would have if Sununu had waged a bid.

“I have a hard time imagining anyone recategorizing it in their minds going into next year given the stakes, but without question, with Sununu out of this, it is a massive exhale,” said Murphy.

The opening came as an equal shock to Republicans, who had launched a months-long full-court press to get Sununu into the Senate race. As recently as October, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, boasted to reporters: “I actually do believe Chris will run.”

But with those predictions now moot, Republicans are retooling what the state will look like without their highest profile presumptive recruit. 

“Everything he was doing looked like he was getting ready to run for Senate,” one top GOP aide told The Hill.

The fact that Republicans are now on the defensive, at least in the Granite State, gives Democrats a bit of breathing room to focus on touting the president’s legislative agenda on the campaign trail. Some New Hampshire Democrats believe that after the successful vote on Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure package late last week, Hassan will now be able to speak more freely about the positive aspects that will impact voters back home. 

She can do that, they say, without the immediate threat of Sununu bulldozing through their victory.

The move also gives Democrats a chance to define a lesser-known Republican candidate than the three-term governor. Any GOP contender will have less universal name recognition than Sununu, which could allow the opposition to build a narrative around a newer face.

Besides Sununu, Republicans were also eyeing former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R), who Hassan beat by historically narrow margins in 2016. She too took herself out of contention, leaving just retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc — who has made questioning the results of the 2020 presidential race a cornerstone of his bid — as the only declared candidate.

Democrats are more optimistic about Hassan’s chances against Bolduc, who lost in the GOP Senate primary last year. The University of New Hampshire’s Granite State poll from October showed Hassan narrowly trailing Sununu, but leading Bolduc by 5 points, outside the survey’s margin of error.

“Now, they go to the bench,” said Demers, about national Republicans’ recruitment strategy. “It gets much more difficult. Whoever they put up is certainly less known and less likely to raise the same amount of money this race is going to take.”

Tags Chris Sununu Joe Biden Kelly Ayotte Maggie Hassan New Hampshire Senate race Phil Murphy Terry McAuliffe

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