“Will he or won’t he?” It’s the starting point of every conversation about New Hampshire politics.
Will popular incumbent Gov. Chris Sununu run for re-election and the all-but-certain chance to make history by becoming the first-ever four-term GOP governor?
Or will he make Sen. Mitch McConnell the happiest man in D.C. by running for U.S. Senate against first-term Democrat Maggie Hassan?
For months, local politicos have been having the conversation largely in private. But as the state budget wraps up, taking one of Sununu’s most pressing priorities off his plate, more Republicans are speculating aloud about what they expect the governor to do next.
And the consensus is: He’s running.
“I think he’ll announce by Labor Day, and I think he’s in,” said veteran NHGOP strategist Jim Merrill on the NHJournal podcast. “A few months ago I didn’t think he was going to do it, but I’m convincing myself it’s going to happen. My guess is he’ll announce in September, and if he does, he’s the number one recruit in the country for Republicans.
“And he’ll win that race in 2022,” Merrill added.
One Republican who hasn’t been shy about predicting Sununu’s future is Merrill’s fellow campaign veteran Michael Dennehy. For months he’s been telling anyone who will listen that Sununu’s making the move.
“Why wouldn’t he?” Dennehy told NHJournal. “It’s a natural. He’s been a successful governor for three terms. Plus there will never be a better opportunity to jump into a U.S. Senate seat. It’s literally his for the taking.”
And two GOP insiders close to Team Sununu who couldn’t speak on the record were also adamant that Sununu would. “He’s running — period,” one said.
Political science professor and frequent pundit Dr. Wayne Lesperance of New England College sees the same trend.
“Like Merrill, I was more convinced early on he would not run. That’s changed,” Lesperance said Thursday. “I see him positioning more and more like someone who is preparing for a run for Senate. So, I think he does run, and I think he announces before Labor Day. And I think he has a lead going into the race at this point.”
One voice of doubt is Tom Rath, perhaps the most experienced GOP strategist in the state.
“My weasely answer would be, ‘he might.’ Chris Sununu has earned the right to take his time,” Rath said. “And I think far beyond the political considerations are the personal. He has a great family, and he’s an excellent governor who folks like and trust. It’s in his interest politically not to make that decision too soon.”
Family concerns are at the center of any speculation about why Sununu — who would enter the race as both the challenger and the frontrunner due to Hassan’s tepid poll numbers and the pro-GOP midterm trend — might not run. Sununu and his wife Valerie have three school-age kids. He’s often talked about his time as a teenager in D.C. when his father (and former governor) worked in the George H.W. Bush White House.
His takeaway: “I don’t want to go back to Washington.”
GOP strategist Dave Carney, another veteran of national campaigns, is also dubious. “I think it’s 60/40 against. In my opinion, D.C. hasn’t made a strong enough case.”
Plus, Sununu often talks about how his experience as an engineer and business manager suits the executive role far better than a legislative one. Does the star of New Hampshire politics really want to play the role of one of the 100 senators?
Rath also isn’t as confident about the outcome of a Sununu vs. Hassan race.
“Maggie Hassan is tough and has won tough races before. This race would not be a slam dunk by any means.”
And what about the man himself? What does he say?
“Here’s the answer, on or off the record,” Sununu told NHJournal Thursday. “I’ve got plenty of time. I don’t have to make a decision right away. I’m enjoying being governor, I’ve got plenty of work to do, and I can take my time.”
He told radio host Jack Heath the same thing earlier in the day. “I won’t make a decision for a really long time. It’s a long, long way off. I’m really going to enjoy having a summer and fall of just being a governor.”
Sununu may wait, but the political speculation won’t. Patrick Griffin, a GOP consultant who works on races across the Northeast, told NHJournal, “Governor Sununu hasn’t indicated his intentions to me in any way, shape or form,” before adding — “I say he’s in!”
As for the outcome, Griffin thinks he knows that, too.
“Sununu’s dialed into New Hampshire voters. Hassan’s dialed into Massachusetts voters. Final result? He wins, and she moves to Cambridge.”