Mr. Sununu won’t go to Washington: Governor’s decision shakes up political landscape

By: , and - November 10, 2021 4:43 am
Chris Sununu during his announcement Tuesday

Gov. Chris Sununu announced on Tuesday that he is running for a fourth term as governor. (Ethan DeWitt | New Hampshire Bulletin)

In retrospect, perhaps Gov. Chris Sununu’s announcement Tuesday – that he will seek a fourth term as governor rather than try to unseat Sen. Maggie Hassan – shouldn’t have been a surprise. As often as Sununu has said he loves his job, he’s derided Congress as ineffectual and a place where doing nothing is called success.

In the end, no amount of courting from national Republicans who saw a Sununu victory as the path to reclaiming the U.S. Senate could overcome that. 

“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington; it’s to the citizens of New Hampshire,” Sununu said Tuesday. 

Few politicians understand what went into Sununu’s decision as well as Judd Gregg, who was elected governor of New Hampshire in 1988 and served in the U.S. Senate from 1993 to 2011. 

“As governor, for every action, there’s a reaction,” Gregg said Tuesday following Sununu’s announcement. “Whether it’s an issue with COVID or roads or safety, you call in your department heads and you say, ‘Let’s solve this problem,’ and expect them to solve it in a short period of time.”

But Gregg also pointed to considerations beyond politics. As governor, he said, “if you have a child’s football game, you can get to it.”

For Sununu, a successful run for Senate would have meant uprooting his wife, Valerie, and the couple’s three children from their home in Newfields. Gregg said that while some in the House of Representatives manage to commute to D.C., it’s not really an option for senators.

“Knowing Chris, I think that a big influence around this decision is his ability to be with his family and participate in their lives,” Gregg said.

And, for his part, Sununu was clear that New Hampshire is the place he intends to do that.

“My commitment is obviously that of a dad, raising his kids so they can enjoy the same amazing place that I had the opportunity to grow up in,” Sununu said.

Long before Sununu was governor of New Hampshire, his life was tied to the state – and its politics. 

As the son of John H. Sununu, Chris Sununu grew up under his father’s governorship from 1983 to 1989, and later his role as President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff, from 1989 until John Sununu’s resignation in 1991. 

Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general and past Republican Party national committeeman, said Sununu’s childhood experience likely influenced his decision not to run for Senate. Sununu moved to Washington, D.C, during “the tender age of junior high and high school,” he said.

“That’s not easy to do when you’re that age,” Rath said.

After leaving Washington, it would take decades for Sununu to join his family’s political dynasty.

He gained an environmental engineering degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1998, and worked at waste sites and water treatment plants for a decade. When his brother John E. Sununu served a single term as a U.S. senator from New Hampshire, losing re-election to Jeanne Shaheen in 2008, Chris Sununu stuck to family business interests, heading Sununu Enterprises, which involved itself in real estate development and business investment.

In 2010, he took over Waterville Valley Resort with a group of investors and ran for Executive Council District 3 that same year. After serving six years on the council, he launched his campaign for governor. At that point, observers saw Sununu as much more invested in Concord than Washington.

To Mike Dennehy, a longtime Republican political consultant, Sununu has been anything but cryptic when it comes to his feelings about the U.S. Capitol.

“One thing I always go back to is when Sununu said he never wanted to go to D.C.,” Dennehy said in an email. “I have to believe his lack of interest in D.C. was a driving force.”

When he heard Sununu’s announcement, University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala wondered why he had discounted the option of a fourth term. “This doesn’t seem like someone who wants to be a U.S. senator,” he recalled thinking. “You could draw a straight line back to when he first started being governor. This was someone who really liked being governor, and there was the potential there that he was going to be like John Lynch in that respect.” Lynch served four terms, from 2005 to 2013.

Like Scala, Wayne Lesperance, a political science professor at New England College, has long followed the state’s politics. He too expected to hear Sununu announce a Senate run. But two things gave him pause: Sununu’s desire to make the best decision for his family and the governor’s experience of living in Washington, D.C., as a child. 

“My first reaction is that all of us thought that the pressure was too great. The encouragement was too great. There was a clear path forward for him,” Lesperance said. 

But Sununu’s enthusiasm for dropping by diners, visiting all parts of the state during his 603 Tour, and talking with voters and business owners is obvious, he said.

“You get that sense from him that this corner office and the work he could do in New Hampshire, even with COVID and all the challenges there, he still seems to be a guy that’s enjoying the job,” Lesperance said. “How many elected officials can you say that about?”

Rath put it simply: “He likes being the captain of his own ship.”

While national Republican leaders may be lamenting Sununu’s decision, Scala said it has to be welcome news to the Hassan campaign. He had predicted that facing off against Sununu would be the toughest fight of Hassan’s career, especially if Democrats and President Joe Biden continue to slip in the polls. 

Given Sununu’s popularity and the political support and fundraising he could have expected, Lesperance agreed.

“I think he had every chance to beat her,” he said. “Anybody other than Chris Sununu that runs doesn’t start with that advantage, and it gives (Hassan) the power of incumbency. It gives her a little bit more of a head start on whoever is going to be your challenger. It’s a good day for Team Hassan.”

In the wake of Sununu’s announcement, Republicans also appeared to lose a couple of potential Plan B candidates.

Former U.S. senators Kelly Ayotte, who was unseated by Hassan in 2016, and Scott Brown, who made an unsuccessful bid against Shaheen in 2014, had been considered top contenders for Hassan’s seat should Sununu decide not to run. But both appear to have other plans.

The Associated Press reported in a tweet that Ayotte said she was focusing on her family, not another run for office. WMUR reported that Brown will focus on the 1st Congressional District candidacy of his wife, Gail Huff Brown. The only declared U.S. Senate candidate on the Republican side is Don Bolduc, a former Army general who hoped to challenge Shaheen last year but lost in the primary. But even without Sununu in the race, Republicans still see it as a seat to turn, Scala said.

“I’m not convinced that Republicans’ second or third choice wouldn’t wind up being perfectly fine against Maggie Hassan given the larger national environment,” he said. 

As for the gubernatorial race, Lesperance and Scala said Democrats are at a significant disadvantage.

“He’s a very popular governor,” Lesperance said. “And the polling data throughout the COVID crisis showed that he was popular with Republicans, but he was also popular with moderates and he was popular with Democrats on the handling of COVID. So, they will have a very tall hill to climb, and there’s not anybody that jumps out at me as an obvious candidate for them that would immediately come into the race neck and neck with Chris Sununu.”

Congressman Chris Pappas has been talked about as a potential challenger. But like Hassan, Pappas will be tied to how Biden and his fellow Democrats in Congress are faring in their handling of the pandemic. 

“The larger political environment doesn’t look good for Democrats and looks very good for Republicans of all sorts,” Scala said.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Annmarie Timmins
Annmarie Timmins

Senior reporter Annmarie Timmins is a New Hampshire native who covered state government, courts, and social justice issues for the Concord Monitor for 25 years. During her time with the Monitor, she won a Nieman Fellowship to study journalism and mental health courts at Harvard for a year. She has taught journalism at the University of New Hampshire and writing at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications.

Amanda Gokee
Amanda Gokee

Amanda Gokee is the New Hampshire Bulletin’s energy and environment reporter. She previously reported on these issues at VTDigger. Amanda grew up in Vermont and is a graduate of Harvard University. She received her master’s degree in liberal studies, with a concentration in creative writing, from Dartmouth College. Her work has also appeared in the LA Review of Books and the Valley News.

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.