The great political philosopher Miles Davis once said, “It’s not the notes you play. It’s the notes you don’t play.”
Running for president is another unplayed note by Gov. Chris Sununu. And the sound of that silence is going to be heard across New Hampshire politics, creating winners and losers in both parties.
Gov. Chris Sununu: This time last year, Sununu was a popular governor who couldn’t get arrested south of Windham or west of Vermont. He leveraged the unique role of the New Hampshire primary into an opportunity to show his political talents on a national media stage. His appearances at venues on the right (NRA, Republican Jewish Coalition) and on the left (CNN, “Meet the Press”) — even the loony left (“The View,” governor? Really?) — got great reviews from political pros and the national press. As New England-based GOP strategist Pat Griffin told NHJournal, Sununu’s name is likely to appear on quite a few shortlists, particularly if a Republican not named Trump moves into the White House in 2025.
And not for nuthin’, Sununu’s approval ratings in the UNH Survey tracked higher during the past few months as he was out selling “The New Hampshire Way” to the rest of America. If he does decide to run for a fifth term, is there any doubt all the positive press and national attention will help him? (Not that he needs it.)
Every Republican Running For President Who’s Not Named Trump: You don’t have to be a political guru to see the problem a Sununu candidacy poses for the “let’s move past Trump,” the “let’s dump Trump,” and the “let’s back a bus over Trump until he stops kicking” wings of the Republican Party. If Trump is the clear winner in Iowa and New Hampshire, the conventional wisdom goes, the race is over, and Trump is the nominee. Iowa’s large evangelical voting bloc could be a problem for Trump as he moves to the incoherent middle on the abortion issue, but polls show he remains popular in the Hawkeye State. Can traditional Republicans stop him in New Hampshire?
With Sununu in the race, probably not. Polls consistently put Sununu in second or third place in New Hampshire, with 15 and 20 percent of the vote. Another candidate, usually DeSantis, is in the same general ballpark, but they both trail Trump by at least 10 points and often much more. A GOP poll taken two weeks ago and obtained by NHJournal showed Sununu with 67 percent favorability, 93 percent name ID — and in second place with 19 percent of the vote. Trump was at 41 percent. The rest of the “not named Trump” field was divided.
By bowing out, that 20 (or more) percent of New Hampshire Republicans who like Sununu and would be proud to vote for their “favorite son” candidate are now available to whichever candidate mounts the most serious challenge to Trump for the nomination.
TV Station Ad Departments: If you heard a loud “whoop” from downtown Manchester — or maybe even in Massachusetts — it was the sales departments at WMUR and the Boston TV market cheering the news that Sununu’s on the bench. His absence means more (theoretically) competitive candidates who will need to reach all of those Sununu-less Republicans with their messages. National GOP strategist Mike Murphy said the dirty secret of the First In The Nation primary is that it runs on Boston TV. He may be overstating it, particularly in the era of social media, but it’s still important. And expensive. Campaigns that might have chosen to fudge New Hampshire and focus on the other early states instead will have more reasons to put their money on the table — and your TV — in the Granite State.
Gov. Chris Sununu: He didn’t run. Again. It may be the right decision, but some will see it as a sign of political weakness. Others, particularly the D.C. GOP establishment that’s already less-than-thrilled with Sununu for his long, unsatisfying tease act over a U.S. Senate run last year, will have flashbacks to New York Gov. Mario “Hamlet on the Hudson” Cuomo. He was widely mocked for his indecision over entering the 1988 and 1992 Democratic primaries. (Cuomo never ran.) Will Sununu make a timely announcement about a potential fifth bid for the governor’s office? Or will he be the “Hamlet of New Hampshire?”
Speaking of which…
Every Republican Who Wants to Run for N.H. Governor Next Year. Running for statewide office in a small state like New Hampshire isn’t easy. It’s hard to raise the millions it takes to mount a serious campaign. When it comes to staff, there’s only so much campaign talent to go around. And as the Trump vs. DeSantis back-and-forth has shown, the endorsement game can get a bit tricky here, too. So, what do candidates for governor want and need?
But while Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig has announced an exploratory committee and Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington has already jumped into the governor’s race, would-be Republican candidates are frozen in place. Former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and former state Senate President Chuck Morse are all interested in running. But how much can they do with Sununu still suited up on the sidelines? Morse has announced that he’s running, but that’s based on the assumption that Sununu isn’t. Asking for checks from people when you can’t see definitively that you’re in the race is a tough sell.
Joe Biden: With Chris Sununu in the race, the intense spotlight on the First in the Nation primary would have faded just a bit. It would still be a show, but it would have lost some of its box-office appeal. Now, with a wide-open field, it’s going to be the final scene from Blazing Saddles (minus Lili von Shtupp, perhaps). And all that action will have the press camped out here every day for months. And while they’re here, watching RFK Jr. holding town halls and talking to reporters, they will ask: “Hey, where’s Joe?” The story of his failed attempt to kill the Democrats’ FITN primary will be covered again and again, and his refusal to campaign in the Granite State could be seen as a comment on his physical limitations, not the new DNC rules.