With popular four-term incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu strongly hinting he won’t seek a record fifth term, an exclusive NHJournal/coefficient poll shows former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte is currently the top choice among Granite State Republicans to take his place.
As speculation spreads regarding Sununu’s future, three names have emerged as the most likely to seek the GOP nomination in the event of a vacancy in the governor’s office: Ayotte, Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut, and former state Senate President Chuck Morse.
In the poll, conducted last week, Ayotte was the choice of 69 percent of respondents. Morse was at 22 percent, and Edelblut 9 percent.
Worth noting: This sample of 904 likely Republican primary voters also strongly supported former President Donald Trump in the 2024 First in the Nation primary. These numbers could be a good sign given Ayotte’s establishment GOP credentials and problematic relationship with Trump in the 2016 campaign.
“In a polling universe where 75 percent of the respondents either support Donald Trump today or are willing to if he’s the nominee, Ayotte’s numbers are impressive,” said coefficient CEO Ryan Munch. “Even accounting for the ‘Name ID’ factor, her supporters have to be pleased with the results.”
It doesn’t hurt that her Kelly PAC just reported nearly $400,000 in new donations, many of them from Morse supporters like Tuscan Brands CEO Joe Faro.
Still, political insiders say the perception of Ayotte as a moderate Republican who’s on less-than-friendly terms with Donald Trump is certain to be a part of any GOP gubernatorial primary.
“Sure, they like her now. But wait until someone reminds them that Trump hates her,” one GOP insider said.
Morse is actively running for governor, though he has made it clear he will not run if Sununu seeks re-election. And Sununu’s recent comments on WEEI’s Greg Hill Show are the strongest indication yet that he’s not interested in another term. Sununu told Hill that he’s “probably out of here in 18 months or so. I don’t know; I don’t think I’m going to run again.”
Ayotte, 54. began her political career as the state’s Deputy Attorney General before going appointed AG in 2004, the first woman to hold that position in New Hampshire. In 2010 she won a hotly-contested U.S. Senate primary, then defeated Democratic Rep. Paul Hodes in the general election. But she was unseated by former Gov. Maggie Hassan in 2016 by just 1,017 votes, in part due to Trump voters abandoning her at the ballot box.
Morse, 63, is a veteran state legislator who served in both the House and Senate, including multiple terms as Senate President, until 2022. That year, Morse stepped down to run in the U.S. Senate primary, where he narrowly finished second behind retired Gen. Don Bolduc.
Edelblut, 62, is a business owner who founded the software company Control Solutions International. In 2016, he ran for governor in the GOP primary, finishing second behind then-Executive Councilor Chris Sununu. As Governor, Sununu appointed Edelblut state Commissioner of Education, where he’s been an outspoken advocate for school choice and Education Freedom Accounts.
If Trump is the presidential nominee, the conventional wisdom is New Hampshire Republicans will likely struggle down ballot. Questions about the former president and his latest controversial comments will dominate the campaign conversation, leaving little bandwidth for Granite State candidates to get out their message. While having Trump on the top of the ticket can help in states like Montana and West Virginia — where Democratic incumbents hope to hold onto their U.S. Senate seats — Trump’s poor polling numbers in the Granite State are assumed to be a liability.
At the same time. New Hampshire was the only state to flip both legislative bodies from Democrat to Republican, even as Biden handily defeated Trump here by eight points.
“With Trump at the top of the ticket, he’ll get his voters to the ballot box in the general election,” one insider unaffiliated with any campaign told NHJournal. “The question is, how many of those voters will also cast a ballot for Kelly Ayotte? These polls are a good first sign, but the campaign hasn’t even started.”