If Not Sununu, Then Who?

The GOP has an opportunity to pick up a Senate seat in New Hampshire—if it can find someone to run.

CONCORD, New Hampshire—The national labor shortage just added another unfilled job: Republican U.S. Senate candidate from New Hampshire.

On Tuesday, Gov. Chris Sununu shocked many political observers—and broke even more D.C. GOP hearts—by announcing he will not be challenging Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan next year. And while there are no guarantees in politics, the popular, three-term incumbent was as close to a lock as a GOP candidate in New England can get. Last year Sununu got more votes in New Hampshire than either Donald Trump or Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.

During the peak of the COVID-19 crisis, Sununu’s approval rose so high that, despite dropping 21 percent since his June 2020 high, he’s still at 56 percent approve/42 percent disapprove in the latest New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll.

By comparison, President Joe Biden—who beat Trump by 8 points here a year ago—is underwater by -12 points (44 approve/56 disapprove). And more significantly, Hassan is at 44 approve/50 disapprove. The bad (or rather, worse) news? That's actually an improvement from two months ago.

Off the record, Granite State Democrats have been grumbling for months that Hassan—never known for her sparkling skills at retail politics—has been phoning it in. Donors, Democratic business owners and lobbyists have all privately expressed frustration at their inability to get Hassan in a meeting or even on a phone call to discuss important local issues.

At the same time, Democratic control in D.C. has put Hassan in the position of voting for policies that are far more popular in AOC’s district in Brooklyn than in this purple corner of New England. Every time Joe Biden touts potential payments to families of illegal migrant families separated at the border or asks OPEC to solve America's soaring gas-price problem, it hurts Hassan in New Hampshire.

The GOP is already calling out Hassan’s votes defending critical race theory, and her support for the Biden administrations vaccine mandate on private businesses—not a popular position in the “Live Free or Die” state. 

And while the $1.25 trillion in the newly passed bipartisan infrastructure bill means more money for Granite State infrastructure, voters here tell pollsters they’re more worried about inflation. Empty store shelves and unfilled jobs in a state whose labor shortage struggles began before the COVID-19 crisis are a front-and-present issue. 

Hassan has been called the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat in the 2022 Senate cycle. But as the political adage goes, “you can’t beat somebody with nobody,” and thanks to Sununu, the biggest unfilled job in American politics is a Republican to challenge Hassan.

Why didn't Sununu run? He didn't sugarcoat his feelings on the matter. He thinks the idea of being a U.S. senator stinks, particularly compared with being governor. 

“I can't tell you how many senators told me, ‘Well, you’re just going to have to wait around for a couple of years until we actually get anything done. Can you imagine me sitting around for a couple of years, waiting?” Sununu said. “The Senate is just debate and talk, and nothing gets done. That's not a world I can live in.”

And while many in New Hampshires political circles were surprised, he’s been dropping not-too-subtle hints on the topic for months. “There are plenty of candidates who can beat Maggie Hassan” has been a frequent refrain since the summer. And he's been open about his disinterest in being a legislator or returning to D.C., where he spent time as a teenager while his dad—also a Gov. Sununu—worked in the George H.W. Bush White House.

But perhaps the biggest tell was Sununu’s silence last week, in the wake of the GOP's surprising surge in New Jersey and Virginia. “Announce the next day, and you're on the front page of every paper in the country,” one New Hampshire Republican strategist observed.

Still, most Granite State politicos and press were operating under the theory that nobody would walk away from what was all but a guaranteed U.S. Senate seat. Now that Sununu has turned down the job, the “Help Wanted” sign has gone up. So far, there are few takers.

Speculation began almost immediately that former U.S. Sen. Kelly Ayotte might want the gig. She lost to Hassan six years ago by just 1,017 votes, in large part because of a “revenge” candidate from the right who got on the general election ballot and took nearly 18,000 votes. 

And almost as quickly, Ayotte took herself out of the running.

Granite State political insiders have known for months that Ayotte has no interest in returning to the Senate. But she is very interested in running for governor someday. Just hours after Sununu’s announcement, WMUR TV’s political reporter John DiStaso quoted sources close to Ayotte saying “she will NOT be a candidate for any office in 2022.”

Another former U.S. senator’s name quickly popped up as well—Chris Sununu's brother, John E., who lost to then-challenger Jeanne Shaheen in 2008. But sources close to the current governor quickly dismissed the notion of a “two Sununu” 2022 election.

And, believe it or not, yet another former senator, Scott Brown of Massachusetts, was spun through the potential candidate cycle nearly as quickly. Brown, who served as Trump's ambassador to Australia, lives in Rye, New Hampshire, with his wife, Gail. He was the Republican challenger to Shaheen in 2014, and his wife is currently running for the GOP nomination in the 1st Congressional District. The current congressman, Democrat Chris Pappas, is serving his second term in a seat that’s about to be redrawn by the GOP-controlled legislature.

So, one more time for Scott Brown?

“I’m really just focusing on Gail right now,” Brown told reporters. “She has a real shot to be the next congresswomen from the 1st District. So, I don’t think so, unless something traumatic happens.”

There actually is a Republican already in the U.S. Senate race, retired Maj. Gen. Don Bolduc, who ran in the 2020 Senate primary against businessman Corky Messner last year for a chance to take on Shaheen. Bolduc lost 51 percent to 43 percent.

Despite an impressive military career that includes 10 tours of duty in Afghanistan, Bolduc's current candidacy isn't taken seriously by most GOP strategists in the state. Why? In part because of his lackluster performance on the stump two years ago, but mostly because Bolduc has decided to run on a “Stop the Steal” conspiracy platform. 

Bolduc was one of 124 retired generals and admirals who released a letter in May claiming the election had been rigged in Biden's favor. And his most recent campaign event headlined disgraced former Trump National Security Adviser Michael Flynn.

Which leaves Sen. Mitch McConnell and National Republican Senatorial Committee Chair Sen. Rick Scott looking hard for one of these “many people” Sununu keeps saying could beat Hassan. (According to Sununu, neither McConnell nor Scott got a heads up about Sununu’s decision. They found out when he made his announcement.)

If Sununu had taken on Hassan, most politicos expected a three-way primary for governor between Ayotte, State Senate President Chuck Morse, and state Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, a businessman and darling of the culture-war right who nearly beat Sununu in the 2016 GOP primary. Would Morse or Edelblut make the move to a Senate race? Neither gave any indication on Tuesday they were leaning that way.

After that, the list of GOP talent turns to retreads and unknowns. 

Former 1st District Rep. Frank Guinta's name has popped, as has former gubernatorial candidate Ovide Lamontagne (yes, that's his real name.)

But that's the problem, says New Hampshire-based GOP strategist Matthew Bartlett. "I'm hearing a lot of names being mentioned, but nobody is mentioning that they actually want to run."

One idea that appeared to get a favorable nod from the Sununu camp is for businessman Jeff Cozzens, currently running against Rep. Annie Kuster in the 2nd Congressional District, to switch to the Senate race. The new map backed by the GOP makes the 2nd District—which hasn't elected a Republican since 2010—a D +16 district. Cozzens, a national security expert who left his job to start a craft brewery, has a blue-collar vibe that could appeal to Trump voters and a business background to connect with tax-obsessed traditional Republicans.

Some are suggesting 1st District candidate Matt Mowers, who was the party's nominee two years ago, could consider a shift to U.S. Senate as well, though he'd be giving up a shot at a likely Republican district if he wins the primary.

Or not. There is, in fact, no candidate for this job who has Sununu’s résumé. His decision puts a nearly-certain seat into toss-up territory, and there's nobody in New Hampshire who can come into this race with his proven skills.

The upside for Republicans? Beating a weak incumbent like Hassan in a wave year like 2022 may not be a job that involves heavy lifting.