Sununu says no to Senate run, will seek fourth term as governor

By: - November 9, 2021 1:27 pm
Gov. Sununu stands at a lectern to answer questions

Gov. Chris Sununu takes questions from reporters at the Bridges House in Concord on Tuesday shortly after announcing he will run for a fourth term as governor. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Gov. Chris Sununu will not pursue a campaign for U.S. Senate in 2022 and will instead seek a fourth term as governor, he announced Tuesday, ending months of speculation and cutting off what national Republicans hoped could be a strong challenge to incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan.

In a morning press conference at the Bridges House in Concord – the state’s historical governor’s mansion – Sununu said he would rather serve two more years as the head executive of the state, a perch he argued would be more impactful than a U.S. Senate seat.

“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington, but to the citizens of New Hampshire,” Sununu told the room. “And I’d rather push myself 120 mph delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics.”

The announcement made public what had been a closely guarded decision amid intense political pressure. And it scrambled predictions and political calculations for candidates across the state.

Since turning down an opportunity to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in 2020, Sununu has been courted by national Republicans, who argued his high popularity could help him topple Hassan. On Tuesday, the governor acknowledged that pressure. But he said he made his decision out of a distaste for legislating and a preference for executive action.

“The Senate is clearly a very different place in terms of expectations, accountability, successes,” he said. “As governor, the job really demands a 24/7 accountability. The people of our state deserve nothing less, and it’s where you can be the most impactful.”

Seeking another term as governor, he said, would allow New Hampshire to continue to take different political approaches than its New England neighbors. And Sununu said there was a use for a “placeholder” Republican senator in the state even if the party didn’t take back the full Senate. “But that doesn’t fit, I think, the skill set and responsibility I have to New Hampshire,” he said.

The governor’s decision temporarily relieves pressure on Hassan’s campaign for re-election – a race that could be pivotal to Republicans’ hopes to retake the chamber. And it opens up the potential for a combative Republican primary at a time where members of the party have disagreed on areas such as COVID-19 vaccination policies and spending. Sununu said Tuesday the U.S. Senate seat was still attainable for Republicans. Hassan, who won her election by a razor-thin margin in 2016, has seen her approval ratings fall, recent University of New Hampshire polls show. Sununu highlighted those polls.

“The good news for the Republican Party and our country as a whole is that the people of New Hampshire are clearly ready to replace Sen. Hassan,” he said, alluding to “great potential candidates” that had reached out to him indicating they would run if he didn’t. The governor declined to identify those interested candidates.

In a statement, Hassan re-election campaign manager Aaron Jacobs acknowledged the path to victory for the Democrat would be hazardous: “Senator Hassan won her last race by 1,017 votes, and we know that no matter who emerges as the Republican nominee this is going to be a hard-fought race. The Senator has shown that she can work across the aisle to get results for Granite Staters – and that is why she has a record of winning tough races. Our campaign is ready for the challenge ahead.”

With Sununu running for a fourth term, state Democrats face an uphill battle to reclaim the corner office. Over five years in the top role, Sununu has proven politically adept and remains popular.

At his press conference Tuesday, Sununu touted accomplishments that included increased mental health spending, including the effort to buy Hampstead Hospital, the passage of a voucher-like educational freedom account program, and his efforts to lower business taxes in the state.

But throughout his time as governor, Sununu has juggled two constituencies: the Republican electorate and the state’s general population, which in recent years has voted for Democratic presidents. He championed a five-year extension of the state’s Medicaid expansion program in 2017, pushing back on some Republicans’ objections. But he also led a successful effort to allow concealed carry of firearms without a permit, and an unsuccessful push to ban mandatory union dues in a “right-to-work” law.

He pressed for a 2017 budget that included spending to add additional positions to the Division for Children, Youth, and Families, even as a conservative faction of the House initially blocked the budget over spending concerns. But he held steady on a long-sought Republican plan to lower the state’s business taxes, easing the business profits tax down from 8.5 percent in 2016 to 7.5 percent in 2021.

Sununu vetoed the repeal of the state’s death penalty, which eventually passed after a legislative override, and has vowed to veto any marijuana legalization bill that reaches his desk. He’s opposed efforts to expand solar use in the state by increasing the net metering limit for consumer generators and vetoed a bill to try to save the state’s struggling biomass plants, but he has advocated for off-shore wind development in New Hampshire and Maine.

And while he opposed a Democratic-led push for a mandatory, statewide paid family and medical leave program for employers, Sununu worked to get a voluntary program into the 2021 budget. Democrats have criticized the voluntary plan as financially unworkable and insufficient.

When Democrats took control of the state Legislature in 2019, Sununu took an oppositional approach, vetoing a record 57 bills, including the state’s budget, which forced lawmakers to negotiate and remove a partial reversal of the business tax cuts.

But since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, Sununu’s greatest political challenges have come from the right. Protesters filled the State House Plaza in April and May 2020, opposing the state’s shutdown of “non-essential” businesses. House Republican lawmakers considered an impeachment attempt in 2020, and tried unsuccessfully to override Sununu’s state of emergency. And in 2021, Republican executive councilors voted down $27 million in funding for vaccine distribution and promotion, following criticism from demonstrators on the right.

Sununu has received criticism from Democrats this year, too, particularly over his decision to sign a budget that included a ban on certain teachings around systematic racism in schools and a ban on most abortions after 24 weeks.

Democrats have seized on that latter decision as key target, framing the new restriction as an undue blow to long-held abortion protections in the state. On Tuesday, they continued that approach.

“For years, Granite Staters have watched Chris Sununu put his anti-choice, special interest agenda first while the people of New Hampshire pay the price,” Senate Minority Leader Donna Soucy, a Manchester Democrat, said in a statement. “It is no surprise with such a record of failure, he would not feel he could win a Senate race against a candidate as strong as Maggie Hassan.”

Still, Sununu’s popularity has remained high, weathering the sinking approval ratings of President Donald Trump and surging during the onset of the pandemic. The consistently high marks have bolstered Republican state lawmakers and vexed Democratic strategists and candidates.

To reach his decision Tuesday, Sununu consulted his immediate family members, including his father, former governor John H. Sununu, who urged him to make the choice that would be the best for him personally. But he also heard from other senators who had served as governors previously, including Sens. Rick Scott of Florida and Mitt Romney of Utah.

“I think they had the best perspective in understanding the difference between the governor and the Senate, the opportunities the governors have and the role, versus the role that a senator plays,” Sununu said.

Former President George W. Bush also talked with Sununu, the governor said Tuesday. The conclusion Sununu reached: The job wasn’t his style.

“I’ve been criticizing Washington for a long time,” he said. “And I guess I was right.”

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Ethan DeWitt
Ethan DeWitt

Ethan DeWitt is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s education reporter. Previously, he worked as the New Hampshire State House reporter for the Concord Monitor, covering the state, the Legislature, and the New Hampshire presidential primary. A Westmoreland native, Ethan started his career as the politics and health care reporter at the Keene Sentinel.