New Hampshire Republicans are skeptical that Gov. Chris Sununu will run for the Senate in 2020—and fearful he won't.
After previously claiming he had no interest in the Senate, the second-term governor has in recent weeks seemed more open to the idea.
Sununu is facing pressure from all sides as he considers the options for his political future. That’s because with the state set to host three competitive races at the top of the ballot, he represents the party’s best hope in two of them.
“There is a very small number of people who have close to the same stature,” said New Hampshire-based political consultant Dave Carney, who has a long history of working with the Sununu family. “And there’s nobody who has the political assets that the governor has.”
Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who has already announced her intention to run for a third term in 2020, is popular and a proven fundraiser. But some polling has shown Sununu in range to impede her reelection.
A half-dozen GOP operatives familiar with Sununu’s political quandary, including Carney, cautioned against reading too much into the governor keeping his options open. They said he loves being governor and that the biggest factor in his decision will be to what extent being in D.C. affects the amount of time he can spend with his young family.
Still, national Republicans are interested in him challenging Shaheen and helping the party hold the majority.
“I talked to him a little while ago, and people have been reaching out to him and encouraging him to do it,” Carney said, “but his attention is with the Legislature.”
A Republican strategist who has run statewide campaigns in New Hampshire reasoned that “when you get not only committees, but you get senators and major donors calling and saying, ‘Listen, this is a real opportunity to serve and make a difference,’ it can be hard to ignore.”
Republicans within the state are mixed. Sununu faced an initial swell of support for a Senate bid after he won reelection last year and seemed to be the only viable option to take on Shaheen. More recently, pressure increased from in-state activists concerned about losing the corner office. The party is still smarting from 2018, when the GOP gave up majorities in the state Legislature and Executive Council, while Sununu delivered the party’s only major victory.
“I can confirm that he has not made a decision,” said a Republican insider who has spoken to individuals close to the governor. According to the insider, allies have brought up concerns about “very left-wing” policies from the state Legislature. Without Sununu, Republicans run a higher risk of losing any check on the legislative body.
Democrats charged with winning governor races view the state as a top target no matter what Sununu decides to do.
“New Hampshire is certainly one of our top pickup opportunities,” Democratic Governors Association spokesman David Turner said. “If it’s an open seat, that does make it even more attractive, but we feel pretty confident either way."
There are plenty of Democrats eyeing the seat. 2018 nominee Molly Kelly is leaving the door open to another bid, and her primary opponent Steve Marchand is “very much looking at it.”
Executive Councilor Andru Volinsky said he is “looking at ‘18 as a bit of a model” and was encouraged by the turnout. According to Volinsky, “an open seat is potentially more attractive, but at the same time if you have a governor who’s vetoed and failed to keep his promises, then you have a record to run against.”
State Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes, who has battled the governor on paid family leave among other issues, is likely to run. Sununu and his allies have accused both Feltes and Volinsky of pushing a statewide income tax.
National Republicans said a marquee Senate matchup at the top of the ticket will attract donors to the state and voters to the ballot box, benefiting the party all the way down the ballot.
While the presidential election generally drives turnout, the 2016 showdown between former then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte and then-Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, attracted more voters than both the presidential and gubernatorial races. Some of the pressure on Sununu to make the Senate leap stems from concern that, without a powerhouse Shaheen challenger, some GOP voters who aren’t strong backers of President Trump may stay home on Election Day.
Republicans roundly agree that no one is better-positioned to win than Sununu. Ayotte would be competitive, but GOP strategists don’t expect her to run this cycle. Meanwhile, recruiting for the gubernatorial race could be easier because the fundraising is likely more attainable than for a Senate race.
Ayotte could run for governor if Sununu takes the leap, and the Concord Monitor reported that her inner circle is encouraging her not to “rule anything out.”
“There’s a desire to see Governor Sununu run for this seat because the bench behind him is quite weak,” GOP strategist Ryan Williams said. “There really aren’t a whole lot of established Republican candidates who could run and raise the type of money that’s needed to compete with Shaheen.”
Williams, who served as communications director for Sununu's brother, former Sen. John E. Sununu, in his unsuccessful 2008 reelection against Shaheen, called the incumbent a “very tough competitor.” While he said the younger Sununu “could absolutely beat Senator Shaheen,” Williams predicted the governor would ultimately run for reelection.
New Hampshire Democratic National Committeewoman Kathy Sullivan estimated that the governor race “goes from being lean-Sununu to becoming a tossup or leaning Democratic if he doesn’t run.” Sullivan said Sununu will leave a weak bench wherever he doesn’t run, but “there would be more interest” among other Republicans “to run for governor than for Senate.”
State Senate Minority Leader Chuck Morse is one potential gubernatorial contender. Sununu’s 2016 primary opponent, Frank Edelblut, now education commissioner, would likely mount a bid as well.
Sununu could run for reelection again to protect Republican veto power during redistricting and then challenge Hassan for Senate in 2022. But the chance to even the score with Shaheen, who unseated his big brother and ran campaigns against his father, former Gov. John H. Sununu, as an operative in the 1980s, could be more enticing.