With friends like Gov. Chris Sununu, Granite State Republicans don’t need enemies.
Months of public hearings, private negotiating, and political cajoling by Republican legislators to create a GOP-leaning congressional district in New England were thrown out the window when Sununu announced the new maps didn’t pass his “smell test.”
“The proposed congressional redistricting map is not in the best interest of New Hampshire and I will veto it as soon as it reaches my desk. The citizens of this state are counting on us to do better,” Sununu said in a statement just minutes after the state Senate voted to approve the maps Thursday morning.
He caught the state’s GOP legislators and activists by surprise, several of whom were telling NHJournal Sununu’s veto talk was just political spin just minutes before he dropped the veto bomb.
“You’ve gotta be sh*tting me,” one Republican activist told NHJournal as the news broke.
House Majority Leader Rep. Jason Osborne (R-Auburn) simply tweeted wryly: “No ‘I’ in ‘Team.'”
Democrats, on the other hand, were ecstatic.
“HOUSE DEMOCRATS STAND READY TO UPHOLD REDISTRICTING VETOES” was the headline of the House Democratic Caucus press release.
“I appreciate the governor’s vow to veto the obviously gerrymandered congressional map,” Acting Minority Leader David Cote (D-Nashua) said. “The governor has an obligation to veto all gerrymandered maps, and Democrats stand ready to uphold vetoes of all redistricting bills not in the best interest of New Hampshire.”
Portsmouth progressive state Sen. Rebecca Perkins Kwoka (D) also praised Sununu’s announcement: “I appreciate the governor’s pledge to veto the legislation and will continue to fight for fair maps.”
And perhaps no Democrat was happier than incumbent U.S. Rep. Chris Pappas, whose First Congressional District would have shifted from a from Biden +6 to Trump +2, according to Dave Wasserman of Cook Political Report.
“I couldn’t agree more with Gov. Sununu,” Pappas said.
Republicans in Concord and D.C. are irate. They believe redistricting is an issue voters do not care about under normal circumstances and are even less interested in when there is a hot war in Europe and high gas prices at home. Why would Sununu kill that rarest of Republican commodities, a GOP-leaning seat in New England?
And it is rare. New England only has six governors, but three of them are Republicans. The region has 33 members of Congress (House and Senate), and just one is a Republican, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine. New Hampshire is the only New England state with a Republican governor and legislature and, therefore, the only state where Republicans could hope to create a foothold.
Which is why D.C. Republicans — already upset with Sununu’s handling of his decision not to challenge Sen. Maggie Hassan — are so angry he would cast such a valuable asset aside. And it is a seat they need to help balance the success Democrats have had with their extreme gerrymandering in states like California, Illinois, Maryland, and New York.
After months of media coverage claiming Republicans were going to gerrymander themselves a majority, it appears Democrats have been handed the winning 2020 redistricting outcome by Democrat-friendly courts.
In Maryland, where Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed the Democrats’ extreme gerrymander (they overrode his veto) Democrats are arguing that not only is gerrymandering not illegal, it’s part of the process.
“Citing past rulings from the Court of Appeals, the state has maintained that the redistricting process is inherently political and that the General Assembly is allowed to pursue political objectives, even protecting incumbents, if it chooses.”
Not Chris Sununu. “I want something that more matches the character of the state. We’re a purple state,” he said Thursday.
A “purple” state with an entirely Democratic federal delegation, and where Democrats have won 13 of the past 16 congressional races.
Granite State Republicans are completely confused by what Sununu’s motive might be. “If you figure it out, please call me,” one Republican legislative leader told NHJournal. “I’ve given up trying to figure that guy out.”
One theory is that Sununu did not want a First Congressional District map so strongly Republican it would drive Pappas out of his race and into a run for governor. Sununu would still be the prohibitive favorite, Republicans believe, but Pappas would make it a race. “[State Sen.] Tom Sherman is a cakewalk. Pappas would mean [Sununu] has to work for it,” one NHGOP strategist said.
Another theory is Sununu wants to help Second Congressional District candidate Jeff Cozzens have a shot at beating Rep. Annie Kuster, and the new maps would make that an extreme longshot. And while it is true Biden’s terrible approval numbers are putting seats like Kuster’s in danger, she has won her last five races by an average margin of more than eight points. Is it really worth costing the GOP a likely win for the sake of a longshot like the Second CD?
And so, the leading theory is Sununu’s decision to throw the NHGOP under the bus is part of his ongoing project of making himself a “post-partisan” Republican candidate. He has gone out of his way recently to attack Republicans in the U.S. Senate, and he has hammered the “both parties are the problem” message. Denying his own party an easy win could be seen as part of that effort.
“I think this is designed to appeal to independents and moderates,” said Dr. Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College. “It’s practical and pragmatic and demonstrates that he will go against his party when he thinks it’s appropriate. Think about how that sets him apart from so many leaders from both parties who do not stand up to more ideologically driven party members.”
Except there is no evidence independents and moderate care about redistricting. Will Sununu pick up a single swing vote because he didn’t let Portsmouth move into the Second Congressional District?
A Republican campaign veteran had a modified version of that theory. “This is about Trump. He’s betting that Trump is on his way out, and he wants to clearly establish himself as separate from that part of the party.” Some Republicans worry a GOP-leaning district would empower the Trump base and leave the party stuck with more fringe-friendly candidates.
The current race has two hardcore Trump candidates: Rep. Tim Baxter (R-Seabrook) and Karoline Leavitt. Leavitt released a statement after Sununu’s announcement. “No map will save Chris Pappas from his far-left voting record that has ripped off Granite State families like my own. No matter the lines, our campaign has the momentum, resources, and grassroots support to flip New Hampshire’s 1st District in November.”
But Trump supporters won’t be any stronger in a GOP-leaning district than a Democrat-leaning one. In fact, the more Republican voters in a district, the more watered down the hardcore base vote will be in a primary.
The inside betting among Granite State GOP insiders is that Sununu’s decision was not about Trump or Pappas or the party. It was about Chris Sununu. They believe he is crafting a narrative as a John McCain/John Kasich Republican, the sort of Republican who often makes Democrats happy, and often at the expense of his own party.
Whatever the governor’s motive, that is what he accomplished with his veto announcement. It is a win for Democrats and a loss for Republicans.
Whether that is a winning strategy in the polarized American politics of today remains to be seen.