Sununu setback leaves GOP scrambling in New Hampshire
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) dashed Republicans’ hopes of netting a gold-standard Senate candidate last week when he announced he’d run for reelection next year instead of challenging Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), setting off a scramble to find an alternative top-tier recruit.
Republicans are insistent that the 2022 New Hampshire Senate race remains a prime pickup opportunity given historical headwinds facing Democrats and President Biden’s plummeting approval ratings. But those expectations have failed to manifest themselves in a candidate the party could coalesce around since Sununu and former Sen. Kelly Ayotte bowed out more than a week ago, hobbling GOP efforts in a state that could flip control of the 50-50 Senate.
“Because Chris Sununu waited so long and decided against running, Republicans do have to scramble to figure out who is the next best candidate to make the best challenge to Sen. Hassan,” said New Hampshire GOP strategist Mike Dennehy. “I don’t think anyone could say differently, including Chris Sununu, because that’s just a fact.”
The seat held by Hassan, along with Senate contests in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada, is considered to be among Republicans’ top offensive opportunities heading into a 2022 cycle in which the GOP must net just one seat to flip the chamber.
Republican optimism was high over the prospects of unseating Hassan, a former governor and first-term senator, amid a flagging economy, frustrations over the coronavirus pandemic and a bloody withdrawal from Afghanistan, all of which produced a nosedive in Biden’s favorability ratings.
A University of New Hampshire Survey Center Granite State Poll released last month showed Hassan statistically tied with both Sununu and Ayotte but revealed that just 33 percent of Granite State voters see Hassan favorably, while 51 percent view her unfavorably. She also holds a narrow lead in the poll over former Gen. Don Bolduc, who is among the more well-known primary contenders already in the race but is still broadly unknown across the state.
However, Republicans in New Hampshire bemoan a thin bench in the state, leaving them clamoring for a strong contender after the withdrawals of their prime recruitment targets, which included Sununu, Ayotte and former Sen. Scott Brown (R-Mass.), who was the GOP Senate nominee in 2014.
“Sununu, Ayotte, Scott Brown, those were the top-tier candidates. And now we’re looking at the Republican Party’s bench in New Hampshire,” another New Hampshire GOP strategist, granted anonymity to candidly discuss the race, told The Hill. “It’s a B-list slate.”
Among the candidates Republicans believe could be competitive are state Senate President Chuck Morse and Frank Edelblut, the state commissioner of education.
Edelblut told local media that he is “not ruling [a Senate run] out” and would make a decision after Thanksgiving. Morse did not immediately respond to a request for comment from The Hill.
Bolduc, meanwhile, ran for Senate last year for the chance to take on Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) but lost in the GOP primary. He’s since closely tied himself with former President Trump in the hopes of gaining the nomination this time around.
However, concerns over fundraising issues in 2020 and recent erratic comments from Bolduc, including calling Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer,” has raised concerns that he may not be the GOP’s strongest contender to take on Hassan.
“I don’t know exactly what [Hassan’s] war chest is right now, but it’s substantial, and it’s only going to grow,” said state Rep. Wayne Macdonald, a former New Hampshire GOP chair. “She’s gonna have, I would expect, all the money she needs, and that’s going to be a huge challenge for any Republican, but especially Don Bolduc, who has not proved be able to raise money that well.”
Bolduc’s campaign dismissed such concerns, saying the recruitment flurry following Sununu’s announcement underscores his outsider bona fides.
“Rumors are flying all over the Granite State about phone calls and recruiting efforts with other potential candidates. At the end of the day, General Bolduc has been campaigning for months and doesn’t need to be hand selected by Washington insiders or career politicians. He’s been recruited by the people of New Hampshire for months now, and will continue to work for them,” Bolduc’s campaign said in a statement.
Still, Republicans say it’s a little late to start their recruitment efforts and are publicly and privately grumbling that Sununu froze the field for months as he mulled his decision.
“He knew he was putting the U.S. Senate seat at a disadvantage for someone else to run,” Dennehy said. “If you’re a first-time candidate for U.S. Senate, typically you need 18 months to get a campaign up and running. A candidate with little to no name ID needs a long period of time to get the campaign off the ground.”
Besides giving potential Republican nominees less time to cobble together their campaigns, the uncertainty also prolongs the amount of time Hassan has to tout her own campaign without any competition.
“Every day that the Republican field isn’t set is a day for Sen. Hassan to press her case,” said the strategist who was granted anonymity.
Republicans in Washington, who were caught off guard by Sununu’s decision to run for reelection, are bullish that Hassan remains vulnerable and that they’ll be able to recruit someone who can excite the base, even if it’s not the extent that Sununu could have.
“Maggie Hassan is the most unpopular and most vulnerable incumbent in the U.S. Senate. She’s embraced the agenda of Joe Biden and the radical left and New Hampshirites are clearly rejecting her. We’re confident that we’ll have a strong Republican candidate who can beat her next year,” said National Republican Senatorial Committee spokesperson Chris Hartline.
Giving Republicans some leeway is a national political environment that is anticipated to buoy GOP candidates in races across the country next year.
The first midterm of a new administration is usually one marked by losses for the party in the White House, and Democrats are already on defense on issues like inflation, the coronavirus, the Afghanistan withdrawal and more.
Democratic concerns reached a fever pitch earlier this month after Virginia Republican Glenn Youngkin defeated former Gov. Terry McAuliffe (D) in the commonwealth’s gubernatorial race, a contest seen as a bellwether for the midterms. On top of that, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy (D) won reelection by just 3 points in a state Biden won by 16 points last year, indicating an atmosphere that may be strong enough to flip both congressional chambers next year to the GOP.
Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center, noted that last month’s poll showed Bolduc performing only slightly worse than Sununu or Ayotte, suggesting the political environment may be able to compensate for a candidate who is not as strong as the governor or former senator.
“Between a very well-known challenger in Chris Sununu, a fairly well-known candidate in Kelly Ayotte and a largely unknown person in Don Bolduc, they all did about equally well. So, I think it almost doesn’t matter who the Republican candidate is, they’re going to do pretty well,” he said. “The question is, are they going to do well enough to unseat an incumbent?”
Still, Republicans are smarting after being surprised by Sununu’s announcement, noting that the stakes in New Hampshire could not be higher when competing for a chamber that could be flipped — or not — based on the results of any one seat.
“The balance of power in the U.S. Senate may well come down to the Senate race in the state of New Hampshire, so it’s tremendously important,” Dennehy said. “And regardless of the fact that Chris Sununu isn’t running, it still could end up being one of the top-tier races in the country.”