Election experts: Trump-Sununu dynamic a ‘fascinating’ boost for right-wing Republicans

By: - November 1, 2022 5:48 am

Republican Karoline Leavitt answers reporters’ questions in June after filing to challenge Congressman Chris Pappas, a Democrat representing the 1st Congressional District. (Annmarie Timmins | New Hampshire Bulletin)

This story was updated Nov. 1, 2022 at 9 a.m. to add a second primary endorsement from Gov. Chris Sununu.

Former President Donald Trump hasn’t campaigned alongside the Republicans running for Congress. And he didn’t endorse in the primary. He didn’t have to.

Don Bolduc, Karoline Leavitt, and Robert Burns made it onto the Nov. 8 ballot by embracing Trump or his views more loudly and proudly than their primary challengers. Leavitt and Burns continue to, defying campaign tradition that says general elections require moderating toward the middle, a better place to win over centrist Republicans and undecided voters.

Tradition may not apply here because all three have gotten the support of Gov. Chris Sununu, a popular Republican who thrives in the middle; a September poll from the UNH Survey Center showed independent voters favoring Sununu over Democratic challenger Tom Sherman 84 percent to 8 percent. He’s rarely embraced Trump and once even called him “(expletive) crazy,” yet has stayed off the former president’s bad side.

“It’s actually quite a fascinating dynamic to have Donald Trump and Chris Sununu, who I would argue represent very different perspectives in the Republican Party – or different approaches anyway – actually working sort of together,” said Wayne Lesperance, political science professor and interim president of New England College. “It’s unplanned, but it’s a complementary relationship for Republican candidates who had to tack very much to the right during the primary, and now are trying to find a credible way to the middle.” 

Nikki Haley, former South Carolina governor and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations for the Trump administration, campaigns for New Hampshire Republican U.S. Senate candidate Don Bolduc (left) during a campaign stop at the Rochester GOP headquarters in Rochester on Oct. 18. (Jennifer Shutt | States Newsroom)

Among the three Republican candidates, only Bolduc, who is challenging Sen. Maggie Hassan, has changed his message – several times. Ahead of the primary, Bolduc questioned the 2020 election results. Two days after the primary, he said he no longer thinks President Joe Biden stole the election. A few days after that he said he needed more information to be certain, and during a debate last week, Bolduc appeared open to the debunked claim that voters were being bused into the state. “It was such a transparent pivot,” said Christopher Galdieri, a political science professor at St. Anselm College. “I told my students this was a classic example of what people think politicians do all the time, which is saying one thing in August and then different things in September and hoping nobody notices.”

All three Republicans have earned their “pro-Trump” status differently. 

Bolduc, 60, campaigns like Trump, as a populist outsider with a say-it-like-it-is style. Ahead of the primary, Trump lauded Bolduc as a “strong guy, tough guy” during a radio interview. 

Leavitt, 25, who is challenging Rep. Chris Pappas in the 1st Congressional District, often notes that she worked in Trump’s press office, a job she held from July 2019 to January 2021. She’s questioned the 2020 election results, saying there was widespread “fraud and irregularities.” She has voiced support for “President Trump’s America-first agenda.” She shares his support for securing the border, limiting abortion, and “law and order” policies.

Burns, 44, seeking to unseat Rep. Annie Kuster in the 2nd Congressional District, includes in his bio that he served as chairperson of the National Youth Coalition for Trump, a position he held before the 2016 election. Ahead of the primary, Burns campaigned as the “only pro-Trump pro-life” candidate in the race. He quickly promoted Trump’s endorsement on his Twitter feed Oct. 25, and he has photos of himself with Trump on his campaign site. And like Leavitt, his policy positions align with Trump’s.

“I feel like all three of these candidates were so focused on their (primary) nominations, and you have to win a nomination to get to the general, I get that,” he said. “They never thought about, ‘Okay, but what do I do when I’m facing an electorate that does not universally adore Donald Trump and that’s not entirely Republican?’”

That’s where Sununu comes in.

“Chris Sununu’s popularity among independents is solid,” Lesperance said. “Much of that is the way he handled the COVID pandemic, but even beyond that Governor Sununu is well liked in the Granite State. And so to the extent he can play a role in making somebody who may have seen more Trumpian during the primary more acceptable during the general election, that’s an advantage.”

After endorsing Senate President Chuck Morse over Bolduc, whom he called a “conspiracy theorist-type candidate,” and George Hansel over Burns, Sununu has backed Bolduc, Leavitt, and Burns, prompting a rebuke from Sherman for supporting election deniers.

During a Republican “unity” breakfast shortly after the primary, he urged Republicans to be disciplined and stick to kitchen table issues that can unite all voters. 

“We do not win this just with the Republican Party,” Sununu said. “We win this with independents and with those conservative Democrats because, guess what? They’re getting those electricity bills. They have to put gas in their tanks, and they’re struggling with home bills as much as anybody else.”

Lesperance said it’s been fascinating to watch the Trump-Sununu dynamic.

“You couldn’t coordinate this even if you tried to,” he said.

Of course their Democratic challengers are seeking those same up-for-grabs voters. 

Galdieri said he’s been surprised Pappas, Hassan, and Kuster have not talked more about Republican characterization of the Jan. 6 insurrection of the Capitol as a peaceful protest of a stolen election. “It’s such a denial of reality,” he said.

For Lesperance, the surprise has been the Democrats’ focus on abortion and climate change and not a more robust conversation of economic issues. 

“(Climate change) is important. It’s just that that’s not what voters care about,” he said. “They want to know how they’re going to afford their heating oil. They want to know how they’re going to get through the expenses of what they perceive to be the inflation increases they attribute to poor leadership on the part of Joe Biden, however unfair that is.”

“If you’re still talking about (abortion) or climate change,” Lesperance added, “you’re missing the opportunity to win votes today.”

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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. Email: [email protected]