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Is There a Future in the GOP for Haley’s Right-Hand Man?
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Is There a Future in the GOP for Haley’s Right-Hand Man?

New Hampshire salvaged Nikki Haley’s longshot campaign. It wouldn’t have been possible without Gov. Chris Sununu.

Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley is joined by New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu as they visit a polling location at Winnacunnet High School to greet voters on January 23, 2024, in Hampton, New Hampshire. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

SALEM, New Hampshire—On the evening of January 22, Gov. Chris Sununu was introducing Nikki Haley for the final time before voting in the Granite State’s “first in the nation” primary commenced the next morning when he unloaded a dump truck’s worth of insults on Donald Trump.*

“We’re tired of losing. We lost in ‘18 and ‘20. We were going to get that big, red wave in ‘22. Hey, Donald Trump, where the F is the red wave? Give me a break,” Sununu told the more than 1,000 people who had packed the ballroom at The Artisan Hotel in suburban southeastern New Hampshire. “We are tired of losers.”

Trump proceeded to notch a comfortable victory in the Granite State the following day, defeating Haley—his last remaining challenger for the Republican presidential nomination—54.3 percent to 43.2 percent. But with that 11-point deficit, the former South Carolina governor and ex-U.S. ambassador to the United Nations beat the final RealClearPolitics polling average by 8 percentage points, outperforming expectations enough to justify continuing her uphill fight through at least the February 24 GOP primary in her home state. Republican insiders in New Hampshire give Sununu much of the credit.

Yes, Sununu endorsed Haley in mid-December over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis and former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, risking his political capital in a state where—as illustrated by the outcome of the January 23 primary—there are plenty of Republican voters who support Trump. But an endorsement is one thing. It was Sununu’s aggressive, multifaceted expression of his support for Haley that made the difference.

Sununu cut television ads for Haley, promoted the Republican contender on social media platforms, sat with her for joint media interviews, introduced her at campaign events, and regularly chit-chatted with voters and took questions from the traveling political press corps. In the final week of the New Hampshire campaign, on the heels of Haley’s disappointing third-place finish in the Iowa caucuses, Sununu doubled down.

More than simply appearing with Haley at nearly every stop, sources tell The Dispatch that the governor played a key advisory role, orchestrating where she traveled and what sorts of events she hosted—coffee shop meet-and-greets, lunchtime diner drop-ins, brewery beer pours, town hall-style speeches, large rallies—as she furiously crisscrossed the state in the final days of the contest. More than that, Sununu relentlessly attacked Trump, something even many Republicans who challenged him for the 2024 nomination hesitated to do.

The governor—who at the 2022 Gridiron Club dinner joked that Trump belonged in a “mental institution”—seemed to have a good time doing it. “He wanted to defeat Trump [and President Joe Biden],” explained Republican operative Matt Bartlett, who splits time between New Hampshire and Washington. “He put his money where his mouth is, made his endorsement, and got out there. … He was coaching and blocking and tackling. He gave Nikki a spotlight to shine.” 

Trump, predictably, didn’t take the slights well. “Sununu is Chris Christie, without the weight,” he posted on Truth Social days before the primary, knocking the governor for not having the “guts” to mount a presidential campaign of his own. On Election Day itself, Trump labeled Sununu a “wacko.”

Some of the former president’s supporters in New Hampshire were similarly unimpressed. “If Sununu would have put the effort into backing Karoline Leavitt and Don Bolduc in the past election, I think that she would be congresswoman and Bolduc would be senator,” Steven Steiner, a 63-year-old real estate agent, told The Dispatch, referring to a House and Senate race in the state that Republicans lost in 2022. “But he didn’t. He did everything but help.” Leavitt is now a Trump campaign spokeswoman; Bolduc endorsed Haley and vigorously campaigned for her.

Sununu, who has said he’ll vote for Trump if he wins the nomination, was not scared off by the former president’s criticism or his growing lead in the polls. If anything, the governor’s attacks on Trump escalated as the primary approached.

The Saturday afternoon before the vote, for example, during a “Politics and Pizza” event at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, Sununu declared voters were about to send “the orange-haired elephant in the room” packing. The following evening, during a rally in Exeter, he told attendees he was “tired of losers” and “sure as hell tired of Donald Trump.” Gathering with voters the morning before the vote, Sununu referred to Trump as “yesterday’s news.”

Sununu, 49, is the scion of a famous New Hampshire Republican family. His father, John H. Sununu, served as governor from 1983 to 1989, and was White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush from 1989 to 1991. His older brother, John E. Sununu, served in the U.S. Senate from 2003 to 2009. And Chris is currently serving his fourth two-year term as governor, holding the office since 2017. But he now exists in a party whose grassroots voters adore Trump, and one that is poised to nominate him for president for the third consecutive election.

So where does all of this leave Sununu? The most charitable answer is “unclear.”

He announced in July that he would not run for reelection in 2024, and Republican insiders in New Hampshire expect the Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained engineer to return to private-sector employment, to both make money and bide his time during this period of Trump supremacy. Sununu seriously considered running for president this year and took steps to launch a campaign before standing down, leaving some supporters to believe he might pull the trigger in 2028.

“Public service is deep in his DNA. He’s clearly good at it and clearly enjoys it,” said Richard Ashooh, a Sununu family friend and former Commerce Department official in the Trump administration who now works in government affairs. “I don’t think he’s done by any stretch, and I hope he isn’t.”

Sununu might have one immediate option, should he choose to avail himself of it. No Labels—the bipartisan group preparing for the possibility of fielding a third-party presidential ticket this year—has reached out to the governor to gauge his interest in the assignment, knowledgeable sources have confirmed to The Dispatch

As a fiscally conservative, socially moderate Republican who has been successful in a battleground that Democrats have otherwise dominated in statewide elections, Sununu is exactly the sort of politician No Labels is looking for to lead its possible White House ticket. The group envisions a Republican presidential nominee and Democratic running mate, and Sununu is not only credentialed and likable, but a fresh face and adept at garnering media attention.

But at least while Haley is still in the race, the governor insists he is not interested.

“I’ve told her straight up, I’m not interested,” Sununu told Politico’s Jonathan Martin in January, alluding to conversations with Nancy Jacobson, No Labels’ leader. On Wednesday, Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt reiterated that sentiment: “The Governor is solely focused on helping Nikki Haley win the Republican nomination and is not interested in the No Labels ticket.”
Next up for Haley is South Carolina, where she has a political mountain to scale and won’t have a governor in her corner the way she had Sununu in New Hampshire. In the deep red Palmetto State, grassroots Republicans and the GOP establishment are staunchly pro-Trump, and her successor, Gov. Henry McMaster, is working feverishly to deliver the former president a victory that might finally force Haley to drop her White House bid.

*Correction, February 1, 2024: The article originally gave an incorrect date for Chris Sununu’s final appearance with Nikki Haley before the New Hampshire primary.

David M. Drucker is a senior writer at The Dispatch and is based in Washington, D.C. Prior to joining the company in 2023, he was a senior correspondent for the Washington Examiner. When Drucker is not covering American politics for The Dispatch, he enjoys hanging out with his two boys and listening to his wife's excellent taste in music.