Watch out, Ron DeSantis?
In an exclusive poll for New Hampshire Journal, more than two-thirds of Granite Staters said they would be willing to vote for Gov. Chris Sununu if he runs for president in 2024. That number includes nearly 40 percent of New Hampshire Democrats.
Sununu has also gotten the attention of a prominent national Democratic SuperPAC that has put him on its 2024 radar.
According to the poll, conducted by Co/Efficient on October 25-26, a total of 67 percent of likely general election voters would either definitely (16 percent), likely (13 percent), or maybe (37 percent) support a presidential bid by the incumbent governor. Only 34 percent said they were not open to backing a Sununu White House run.
While Sununu would be a longshot candidate, some political pros said the poll numbers are impressive.
“In this poll, Sununu passed the single most important test in presidential politics. I call it ‘The Podium Test,'” said veteran GOP strategist Patrick Griffin. “When people can picture an elected official potentially standing behind the presidential podium and not laugh — it means something. This is especially true in a state like New Hampshire where voters have gotten pretty damn good at sorting the wheat from the chaff in presidential campaigns.”
Sununu has been widely rumored as a potential 2024 candidate since his decision not to run against incumbent U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan. It is a rumor he has done little to quell. (Sununu declined to comment for this story.)
Not everyone is as impressed as Griffin.
“Gov. Sununu and [Maryland Gov.] Larry Hogan would battle for the center left of the Republican primary field if they ran,” said Corey Lewandowski. “That’s not a successful path to the presidency.” Lewandowski is a close ally of former President Donald Trump, who appears to be preparing for a third White House run next year.
Trump remains the single most important player in Republican politics, and he has a somewhat contentious relationship, at best, with Sununu. In February, Lewandowski said he had been tasked by Trump with finding a primary opponent to take on Sununu. A few weeks later, Sununu returned the favor during the Gridiron Club dinner by calling Trump “f***ing crazy.” Sununu said it was all in good fun.
In New Hampshire, some of the aggressively anti-vax activists and hardcore Trump supporters have claimed Sununu has lost support among the state’s GOP base over issues like his handling of the COVID emergency or vetoing a parents’ rights bill. However, the new poll found just 13 percent of Republicans unwilling to support a presidential bid. Meanwhile, 39 percent of Granite State Democrats said they would consider backing him, an unusually high number in this polarized political environment.
But Sununu’s strength — appealing to independent voters and even moderate Democrats — might hurt him more than help.
Sununu would face the challenge of running as a pro-choice candidate in the GOP presidential primary. The last pr0-choice Republican nominee was Richard Nixon, who was already president when the U.S. Supreme Court crafted its Roe vs. Wade ruling. Sununu’s “moderate on abortion” stance may work in New Hampshire, but what about the other states in the presidential primary process?
R.J. May is a state representative in South Carolina who also runs a GOP consulting firm, Ivory Tusk. He said Sununu will have a lot to prove to Palmetto State Republicans.
“Gov. Sununu isn’t well known in the Palmetto State. Frankly, he isn’t known at all,” May said. “But if he travels South he’ll quickly find that Republicans here want a presidential nominee with strong conservative credentials and a backbone of steel. If Gov. Sununu can make the case he’s not a milquetoast squish or establishment hack, he’ll find fertile ground here. But if he brings a message of kumbaya and compromise, he’ll have a tough row to hoe.”
Former George W. Bush official Craig Stevens, who is active in New Hampshire GOP politics, on the other hand, sees plenty of potential for a Sununu run.
“Across the political spectrum, the voters who know Chris Sununu the best appreciate his pragmatic conservatism that is fiscally responsible and socially libertarian,” Stevens said. “This is reflective of not just the New Hampshire electorate, but of voters across the country who want policymakers to work together to make America strong. This MIT-educated governor is, paradoxically, one of the best retail politicians in the country. If decides to run for president a lot of people across the country will take notice of his comity, common sense approach, and willingness to work across the aisle to make government work.”
Sununu will be one of the dozen or so potential 2024 candidates speaking to the Republican Jewish Coalition at its annual meeting after next month’s midterms, a list that includes former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley and former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.
Sununu has also caught the eye of at least one Democratic SuperPAC, American Bridge 21st Century, which has him on its 2024 watchlist, along with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, former Vice President Mike Pence, and, of course, Donald Trump.
Like many Republican insiders, Griffin says Sununu’s greatest challenge is with his own party’s activists rather than the average voter.
“Sununu represents common sense conservatism with a touch of independence. He makes an impressive general election candidate in what needs to become a rebranding of the GOP in a post-Trump world,” Griffin said. “The GOP has to rethink how to recreate ascendency in our nominee. Who can step into tomorrow, and not yesterday? A successful 2024 Republican campaign will be about addition and multiplication, not division and subtraction.
“And Sununu is pretty good at math.”