Possible Hassan-Sununu Senate faceoff has both parties eyeing New Hampshire

  • New Hampshire Democratic Senate candidate, Gov. Maggie Hassan speaks to media, Tuesday, Nov. 8, 2016, outside a polling place in Portsmouth, N.H. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola) Ap (left), Concord Monitor (right) file photos

  • New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu vetoed a bill that would repeal the death penalty in the state during an event at the Officer Michael Briggs Community Center in Manchester on Friday, May 3, 2019. Nick Stoico

  • Gov. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., left listens as Gov.-elect Chris Sununu speaks at the Governor's agency budget hearings Friday, Nov. 18, 2016, in Concord, N.H. (AP Photo/Jim Cole) ap file

  • Gov. Chris Sununu. (Concord Monitor - Elizabeth Frantz) Elizabeth Frantz

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 6/12/2021 9:45:15 PM
Modified: 6/12/2021 9:45:15 PM

WEST LEBANON — A possible matchup next year between Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and U.S. Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., is drawing national attention as one of the key races in the GOP’s effort to regain control of the U.S. Senate.

With an approval rating of 68%, Sununu is one of the nation’s most popular chief executives, largely because of his seemingly moderate politics and what many consider to be a successful response to the coronavirus pandemic.

The 46-year-old Sununu also has name recognition — his father served as a governor in the 1980s and his brother was a senator from 2003 to 2009 — and he has three statewide victories in purple New Hampshire to back it up.

Altogether, experts say, the three-term governor would be the strongest candidate in the state to flip a Senate seat and deliver Republicans an important win needed to push back on President Joe Biden’s agenda.

“I think there’s a good chance that he will (run),” said Dante Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

“In addition to Senate Republicans calling him asking him to run, I think there’s a time pressure on him as well in the sense that if he wants to try for higher office, he may never have a better opportunity than 2022,” he added.

The 63-year-old Hassan, however, also has strong statewide credentials, having served as governor for two terms before winning the Senate seat against a GOP incumbent in 2016.

While officials from Hassan’s office declined to comment on a potential Sununu challenge in 2022, it’s clear that she’s already gearing up for a tough race.

Hassan, who defeated then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., by 1,017 votes five years ago, has been touting her support of the American Rescue Plan, the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus package related to the COVID-19 pandemic that was passed into law by Democrats earlier this year without any Republican support.

She’s also been touring the Granite State highlighting her work in local communities, including a stop earlier this month to promote efforts to build new trails in West Lebanon.

Hassan herself has acknowledged that she is likely to face a close race, saying in a fundraising email earlier this month, “CNN, Politico, and The Washington Post have all reported that New Hampshire is one of the most likely Senate seats to flip to the GOP in 2022. With our fragile 50-50 majority, we can’t give up any ground in this crucial race.”

Scala said personal popularity would likely play a “big factor” in a potential Senate race, noting not only Sununu’s high approval ratings but also the 2020 gubernatorial election, where Sununu handily defeated his Democratic challenger, Senate Minority Leader Sen. Dan Feltes, with 65% of the vote.

“His approval numbers are certainly excellent and he’s coming off a resounding victory a year ago,” Scala said. “It’s tough to imagine being in a better position than he is right now.”

Senate and state Republicans seem to agree and are actively courting the governor to run.

“He’d be a great candidate,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told Politico last month. “We’re hoping he’d make the race.”

Given the national stakes, Dean Spiliotes, a political analyst and professor at Southern New Hampshire University, predicted that a Sununu run could result in one of the most expensive congressional races the state has ever seen. Money from candidates and special interest groups could easily top $100 million, he said.

“It all depends on whether he wants to make the transition from chief executive to senator,” Spiliotes said, adding that if Sununu were to win, he’d go from being in charge of a state to one of 100 members of the Senate.

In Washington, Spiliotes said, Sununu also would have to play a difficult balancing act between pro-business, moderate Republicans and those more aligned with former President Donald Trump.

“That’s a tough balance, but he’s done a pretty good job navigating it so far,” Spiliotes said.

Sununu hasn’t yet indicated whether he’ll seek higher office in 2022, although the governor said earlier this year that he’s “definitely open” to a Senate run.

“His focus remains on guiding New Hampshire out of COVID and passing a state budget with across-the-board tax cuts,” Sununu spokesman Ben Vihstadt said in an email Thursday.

“His next steps could be running for reelection, running for U.S. Senate, or returning to the private sector to spend more time with his family, and expects a decision will be made later this year,” Vihstadt added.

Past precedent

While both Hassan and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H. both successfully made the jump from governor to senator, favorable polling figures and political pressure don’t always lure New Hampshire governors to higher office.

Democrat John Lynch, the state’s longest-serving governor in nearly 200 years, stepped down at the end of his fourth term in 2012. At the time, his 70% approval rating was among the highest in the country.

“I have enormous respect and appreciation for the people who do run for the Senate and the House, but it’s not a job that I wanted,” Lynch, a former CEO who now teaches leadership at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business, said in a phone interview.

“I don’t think I would have enjoyed being a senator or being in Congress. That’s a very different job,” he said. “Plus, I don’t want to leave New Hampshire.”

Lynch said being governor is like the CEO of a state, with management being the key role. Meanwhile, lawmakers are more engaged in policymaking and provide oversight rather than running government agencies.

In the past, Sununu also has expressed a displeasure for campaigning and dislike of Washington politicians, saying last year that Americans should “fire them all” over Congress’ response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I hate campaigning. I hate having to run,” he said during a visit to Dartmouth College in 2019. “I love doing the job.”

Statehouse challenges

Democrats are already working on ways to take apart Sununu’s moderate image, starting with his support for the state Senate’s budget proposal.

The Republican-controlled Senate voted earlier this month to pass a two-year spending plan that would ban abortions after 24 weeks of pregnancy — including in cases of rape or incest — unless the mother’s life was at risk.

While Sununu has described himself as “pro-choice,” the governor said he wouldn’t veto the budget over the provision, saying he doesn’t support “late-term” abortions.

Polling released by UNH in March found that Granite Staters are divided on the matter, with 48% in support of the Senate measure and 40% opposed.

However, Granite Staters appear to be largely in favor of at least some forms of abortion remaining legal, with 38% of those polled saying that abortion should be legal in all circumstances while 50% said it should remain legal in limited circumstances. Only 8% were in favor of banning it outright.

On Tuesday, the New Hampshire Democratic Party held a news conference where lawmakers and health care professionals attempted to tie Sununu to the Senate plan, saying it could make New Hampshire unattractive to potential residents and doctors.

Kathy Sullivan, a former state Democratic party chairwoman, also pointed to the Senate’s so-called “divisive concepts” proposal as something that would not be welcomed by general election voters.

The measure would prevent schools concerned about systemic racism from teaching that people are inherently oppressive because of their “immutable characteristics.” That includes race, gender and sexual orientation.

“He has a record that he’s going to have to defend and I don’t think it’s a record that speaks to the mainstream of New Hampshire voters,” Sullivan said in a phone interview.

Sullivan went on to say that politically moderate women are typically the bellwether of New Hampshire elections, and she believes that the Legislature’s actions alienate them, potentially hurting Sununu by association.

Even some Republicans acknowledged that Sununu’s final actions on key pieces of legislation could determine whether he’ll be able to mount a successful Senate run.

State Sen. Bob Giuda, R-Warren, said Thursday that the governor will have to balance the priorities of differing factions, including Main Street Republicans and social conservatives.

In its budget, the state House included a version of the divisive concepts bill that also would apply to state contractors, and the powerful House Freedom Caucus has pledged to defend it.

“I think that, in large, those measures will shape the likelihood of a successful run,” said Giuda, whose district includes the Haverhill area.

Meanwhile, Scala, the UNH professor, said he thinks Hassan’s future may be tied to Biden’s performance. If the economy is doing well and voters favor Congress’ initiatives, he said, she could do well next year.

“If Sununu gets in this, it becomes a very competitive race,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that Hassan can’t beat Sununu.”

Tim Camerato can be reached at tcamerato@vnews.com or 603-727-3223.

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