A few weeks ago, Gov. Chris Sununu made New Hampshire the 37th state to impose a statewide mask mandate, the last New England governor to do so. It was a decision denounced as big-government overreach by libertarian-leaning Republicans and dismissed as too little, too late by state Democrats.
In other words, it was right in the political sweet spot, which is where Sununu spends most of his time.
New England Republicans, by definition, are an odd breed. They’re the political equivalent of Ginger Rogers—“She does everything Fred Astaire does, but backwards and in high heels”—facing all the challenges of other Republicans but in hostile territory and with few political friends.
Then again, the sample size is so small it’s hard to draw any conclusions. There are 31 members of Congress representing the six New England states, and just one Republican: Maine political Iron Lady Susan Collins. At the same time, half of the region’s governors are Republicans.
On paper, anyway.
Vermont Gov. Phil Scott stretches the definition of “moderate” in the current GOP, and Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker would be in the center-left of the Democratic Party in most states.
Chris Sununu, on the other hand, is a more traditional Republican. Some New Hampshire Republicans even conjecture, in hushed tones at private gatherings, he might be a conservative.
Polls have consistently found he’s one of the most popular governors in America. And while there are fresh reasons to be skeptical of political polling, in the “one poll that matters”—the November 3 election—Sununu proved he’s the most popular politician in New Hampshire.
The same night Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump by 8 points in New Hampshire, Sununu won re-election by more than 30 points over state Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes. Sununu also invested his political capital in state legislative races—something no New Hampshire Democrat was willing to do—and helped the GOP flip both chambers of the legislature. It was the only statehouse pick-up in the country.
Not only did Sununu outperform Trump by 150,000 votes, but he also outperformed veteran Democratic U.S. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, a former three-term governor, by 65,000 votes.
Not surprisingly, Washington Republicans want Sununu to take on first-term U.S. Senator Maggie Hassan in 2022. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Sen. Rick Scott says he’s sure Sununu will take his call. “I know Chris,” Scott told radio host Hugh Hewitt. ‘He wants to serve his country.”
Serve, yes. But, Sununu insists, not in Congress. Sununu has repeatedly said he doesn’t want to be a legislator and he has no desire to move his three school-age children to D.C.
So, what about a Washington job that allows Sununu to stay in an executive position? How about, say, Haley/Sununu 2024? A new poll from the New Hampshire Journal shows that 55 percent of Republicans in the state would be more likely to support a GOP nominee in 2024 if Sununu were the running mate.
“I think it’d be great,” Sununu told me a few days after the November election. “I’m a believer that whoever is on the national ticket for president should always be a governor or a business person.”
“Senators and congressmen think about policy, and that’s important. It’s the foundation. But at the end of the day, you need to be able to turn that policy talk into something tangible for our citizens,” Sununu said.
Implementation and operation is the Chris Sununu style of governance. Without mentioning the current GOP president, Sununu’s focus on data-driven policy and his engineer’s approach (he has an environmental engineering degree from MIT) is an unspoken rebuttal to Trumpism.
On the issue of Trump, Sununu has been giving a master class on how to be a Republican governor who supports his party’s president in a state where Trump is unpopular, without falling into the Trump trap. Fellow New England Govs. Scott and Baker have gone out of their way to attack Trump, thus marginalizing themselves within the national GOP. Sununu, on the other hand, never hesitated to say he was supporting Trump in 2020—when asked. He also didn’t hesitate to criticize Trump, either. “I call balls and strikes” is his go-to phrase.
As a result, Sununu enjoys extremely high support among New Hampshire Republicans and independents and, based on ticket-splitting, about 25 percent of Democrats, too.
Compare that to Gov. Baker across the border in Massachusetts, who polls worse among his fellow Republicans than he does among Democrats. If Charlie Baker ever gets a gig in D.C., it will be from President Biden, not GOP primary voters.
Sununu has found a way to appeal to both his Trump-supporting Republican base and the affluent, college-educated suburbanites in places like Bedford and Wolfeboro, New Hampshire. For a Republican Party hoping to keep populists in the coalition while bringing college-educated women back into the fold, Chris Sununu is doing that right now. And he’s doing it in a state that has only backed the GOP presidential candidate once in the past 28 years.
Sununu is the 46-year-old son of former New Hampshire Gov. John H. Sununu. He’s the second-youngest of eight siblings, one of whom is former U.S. Senator John E. Sununu. He spent part of his teen years in Washington, D.C., which he told New Hampshire Public Radio he found to be a learning experience: “It taught me I don’t want to go back to Washington.”
Sununu was in Washington because his father had taken the job of George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, a position the elder Sununu left amid controversy over his management style and alleged use of military aircraft for personal and political travel. But Sununu père landed on his feet. Long before the current cliche that what most American politicians want is a cable-news gig, the older Sununu got a job co-hosting CNN’s Crossfire from 1992-98.
Ask the former governor about his son’s political approach and, like many people close to the current governor, he mentions Sununu’s engineering background. (John H. has his own degree from MIT, a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering.)
“Engineers are meticulous, data-driven, performance oriented and quality-obsessed. He brings his capacity for handling data to the job.”
Asked if this makes his son ‘a technocrat like Mike Dukakis,” Sununu’s well-known temper flares. “No! Chris knows how to understand and use the data. That guy [Dukakis] couldn’t run a lemonade stand.”
As for his son’s political philosophy, John calls him a Reagan Republican. “I was a Reagan Republican, too. It’s a Republican who understands the fundamental contributions of the heartland of America, or the heartland of New Hampshire. That’s what you nurture.”
And how would the current governor himself describe a “Chris Sununu Republican?”
‘You’ve got to be genuine. Don’t try, just do,” Sununu said. “A lot of politicians, they try too hard, they parse every word and try to find the perfect tone and it comes off so phony.
“And, look, I make mistakes. You have to be able to say, ‘We tried something. It didn’t work.’ But that’s part of being genuine. And you know—people will understand.”
Veteran GOP strategist Dave Carney’s answer is similar. “Chris Sununu is a guy who’s 100 percent comfortable in his own skin. That’s very rare in politics.” Carney credits the atmosphere in the Salem, New Hampshire, household where Chris grew up and Carney spent quite a bit of time as a young political operative.
“Everybody talks about his dad, but his mom [Nancy] was an excellent mentor. With their dad being governor, the kids grew up in a fishbowl, but she kept everyone grounded. The kids played sports, they did their homework, and they helped on campaigns, and she made it all happen.”
Growing up in that environment made Sununu a quick study, helping him become the nation’s youngest governor in 2016 at age 42.
“His familiarity with politics helps him look at it differently. He’s approachable, he’s likable and he knows that can overcome partisanship. And it’s why he understands issues like the sticker on the deli bag,” Carney said.
Ah, yes: the “sticker on the deli bag” story. It’s one of many in the Chris Sununu political pantheon, including “the Exit 3 Kid,” and a pardon for Mink the Bear. They show that, while Sununu may not be the showman Donald Trump is, he understands the power of a well-crafted tweet.
And so when Sununu saw a tweet from a fellow Granite Stater expressing frustration over the Market Basket deli department’s habit of sticking the price tag over the ziplock bag opening, Sununu replied with a tweet of his own.
The tweet sparked a flurry of favorable media coverage and, apparently, a change in the popular local grocery chain’s deli policy.
Sununu has also spoken out against federal plans to change the numbers on interstate exits from the current sequential system to mile-marker based numbering.
And perhaps his biggest moment of political box office, Sununu overruled a decision by the Fish and Game Department to euthanize a bear and her three cubs who had become too acclimated to humans. Instead, he had them relocate the bears from their home near Dartmouth College to a remote area near the Canadian border.
In New Hampshire, where the realities of rural life and woodland creatures are well-understood, it was a controversial decision. “Butt out @GovChrisSununu let wildlife experts do their job,” one former Democratic legislator tweeted at the time.
But Sununu had correctly read the mood of a majority of Granite Staters once again.
On policy, Sununu embodies the oft-invoked “fiscal conservative, social moderate” mold. He loves tax cuts, and he has already pledged not to raise taxes to fill any COVID-19-related budget holes. He supports school choice and the Second Amendment, and he firmly believes in local control.
Democrats attacked his decision to allow local districts decide how and when to reopen classrooms or go to hybrid learning amid the COVID-19 crisis, but Sununu never backed down. And in the months when he refused to issue a state mandate, he repeatedly reminded cities and towns—many governed by Democrats—they could impose their own mask mandates anytime they wanted.
At the same time, Sununu says he is pro-choice, and he signed a transgender rights bill into law in 2018. He publicly supported Black Lives Matter marches over the summer in the immediate aftermath of the George Floyd killing.
The net result is a Republican whom Democratic-leaning moderates want to vote for. For a party that has lost the popular vote seven of the past eight presidential elections, that’s a good thing.
“Chris Sununu could definitely play on the national stage,” says Neil Levesque of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at St. Anselm College. Levesque has seen dozens of would-be nominees make appearances at the obligatory Politics and Eggs breakfasts, a staple of New Hampshire’s presidential circuit, and he believes Sununu has the brains and political brawn required for a national campaign.
“I think his appeal is that he’s not desperate for the attention of voters. He lays out his position and explains it, instead of just telling people what they want to hear. He’s like [late U.S. Senator John] McCain in that sense. You can feel it when he’s speaking, and it’s refreshing.”
McCain’s name still has some cache in New Hampshire, but it’s anathema for much of the party’s base. And simply describing himself as pro-choice may be enough to keep Sununu off the ticket. But as a running mate for, say, Nikki Haley or Sen. Tim Scott, he could be a common-touch candidate who connects with suburbanites around the country who closely resemble the swing voters of his home state.
And then there’s this: If Sununu’s popularity remains high, he could conceivably flip the state’s four Electoral College votes to the GOP. Four votes may not sound like much, but in the era of 50-50 American politics, it’s easy to see a scenario where they matter. Just ask George W. Bush. Florida’s hanging chads counted only because he’d won New Hampshire en route to that 271-266 Electoral College victory.
Is there any other Republican who could bring a real shot at blue Electoral College votes with them to the ticket?
In New Hampshire, the question Republicans are asking isn’t “what about 2024,” but rather, “What’s Sununu going to do next?” Some believe the pressure to give Mitch McConnell another GOP senator will be so great, Sununu will take one for the GOP team and run against Hassan. Others say Sununu’s going to run for a fourth two-year term as governor and then move on to the lucrative private sector.
His father says people who expect Chris Sununu—or any other Sununu—to just keep running for office don’t understand the family’s ethos. “We believe in service. We call it ‘tithing our time.’ You serve your community, you give your time, then you return to your profession.”
But how does “Haley/Sununu 2024” sound to John H.?
“Not nearly as good as ‘Sununu/Haley.’”
Michael Graham is managing editor of New Hampshire Journal.