It may be weeks before Gov. Chris Sununu decides if he will seek a record fifth term, but his fellow Granite State Republicans who are eyeing his job aren’t waiting around.
On Wednesday, former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s Kelly PAC filed its financial disclosures showing $414,000 cash on hand, $388,000 of which was raised in the filing period. And all but $26,000 of the contributions came from New Hampshire donors, as opposed to the out-of-state funding Granite State candidates often rely on.
“An impressive haul,” one veteran GOP operative not affiliated with any campaign told NHJournal.
If Sununu is out of the race, three Republicans are widely expected to run for the GOP nomination next year: Ayotte, Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, and former state Senate President Chuck Morse. Many names on the Kelly PAC list have been Morse donors, like Tuscan Brands CEO Joe Faro, homebuilder Steven Lewis of Atkinson, and attorney Phil Taub.
“My first choice for governor in 2024 is Gov. Sununu. But he hasn’t announced, and until he announces, nobody is really running,” Taub said. “But you can see from the report there’s tremendous support for Ayotte, including from folks who supported Chuck Morse when he ran for U.S. Senate.”
Morse is already campaigning — with the caveat that if Sununu’s in, he’s out — and he said fundraising wouldn’t keep him on the sidelines. “Oh, we’ll have the money,” Morse told NHJournal in a recent interview. A source close to the Morse campaign said that while $414,000 is a solid number, “It’s not going to scare anyone out of the race. Look at Frank [Edelblut]. He can reach into his own pocket for $2 million if he needs to.”
Still, Republican strategists privately say locking down those major donors early is both good news for Ayotte and a smart strategy.
“Kelly Ayotte has worked hard behind the scenes to be ready to hit the ground running if Gov. Sununu does not run for re-election,” one NHGOP operative said. “Kelly has the financial backing and has already built strong political support across the party.”
Windham businessman Al Letizio Jr. called Ayotte “a strong conservative leader. I think she’d make an incredible governor.”
A major question for Ayotte is how the GOP’s pro-Trump base will respond to her candidacy. In their opinion, many Trump backers have less-than-fond memories of Ayotte’s 2016 campaign, when she mishandled the Trump issue. The divide was so great that 30,000 voters chose third-party candidates, most of whom would have otherwise been Republican voters. Can Ayotte repair that gap?
Windham Selectman Bruce Breton, a longtime Trump backer and current 2024 New Hampshire co-chair for the Trump campaign, said he believes she can.
“New Hampshire needs a fighter like Kelly Ayotte as our next governor. She knows how to win and would wipe the floor with any Democrat next November,” Breton said. “I hope Kelly runs. I know that she would be a great conservative governor.”
Until Sununu says he is not running, Ayotte advocates say, a lot of money from her supporters is still sitting on the sidelines. They believe many of Sununu’s strongest backers will be theirs, too. Other Republicans point to the strong relationship between Sununu and Morse and the number of major donors who have supported both. “They [Ayotte and Morse] are going to be fishing out of the same pond either way,” one strategist said. “The question is: How big is that pond?”
And expect to hear much talk about “electability” from Team Ayotte in a competitive primary.
“I think we’d be very lucky to have Kelly enter the race,” Taub said. “Kelly is the only one [of the three named candidates] who can win a general election. The same independents and moderate Democrats who’ve voted for Sununu will vote for Kelly, too.”