New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu warned fellow Republicans on Monday that their party is doomed to lose “up and down the ballot” in 2024 if second-tier candidates don’t start clearing the field for someone else to take on former President Donald Trump.
Sununu, who runs the state with the first primary and the second contest in the Republican nomination process, issued what amounts to an anti-endorsement of Trump in a New York Times op-ed.
“[W]innowing down the field of candidates is the single best chance to stop Mr. Trump,” he wrote. “If Mr. Trump is the Republican nominee for president in 2024, Republicans will lose up and down the ballot.”
Having flirted with his own bid before demurring, Sununu has done little to hide his disdain for Trump in recent months, often making similar arguments in conversations with reporters. But the very public airing of his misgivings comes at a time — two days before the first Republican primary debate — when Trump’s lead over the field of contenders is so yawning that many Republican operatives believe it can’t be overcome.
A new NBC News/Des Moines Register/Mediacom poll released Monday shows Trump with a 42% to 19% lead over Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis in Iowa, which will hold its caucus before New Hampshire’s primary. Trump’s edge in national polls is consistently wider, and it has grown during an indictment summer in which the former president has been charged with federal and state crimes in Washington, D.C., Florida, Georgia and New York.
A Trump spokesman did not reply to a request for comment on Sununu's essay.
Some Republicans worry that Trump carries too much baggage to win in a general election rematch with President Joe Biden, and others are discomfited by the idea of a second Trump presidency.
Special counsel Jack Smith is pursuing charges related to Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election and, separately, charges that he illegally retained classified documents after he left the White House. In Georgia, Trump and 18 alleged co-conspirators have been charged with breaking the law as part of an effort to reverse the election results in that state. And Trump is due to be tried in New York in connection with hush money payments made to adult film actress Stormy Daniels.
Sununu argues in his op-ed that candidates who don’t qualify for the debate stage Wednesday in Milwaukee, or for the next debate at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library, should drop out. Trump has said he won’t debate Wednesday — he is instead planning to appear in an already-recorded segment with former Fox News host Tucker Carlson — and will possibly skip future candidate forums.
Then, Sununu advises, there should be a second and third culling of the field.
“Anyone who is polling in the low single digits by Christmas must acknowledge that their efforts have fallen short,” he wrote. “After the results from Iowa come in, it is paramount that the field must shrink, before the New Hampshire primary, to the top three or four.”
Sununu has made the case before, to voters and journalists, that Trump would be defeated if he is faced with a one-on-one race, rather than a crowd of opponents who split votes.
Sitting with former Rep. Will Hurd, R-Texas, and four voters at MaryAnn's Diner in Derry, New Hampshire, on Aug. 14, Sununu said the onus is on the also-ran hopefuls to clear the field.
"I think if the candidates have the discipline to narrow it down to one on one — but that’s up to these 12," Sununu said. "To find who it is. And if they all say 'Look, Will is winning this thing, we are all getting behind Will' and it’s Will and Trump, Will wins in a landslide or almost any of them and Trump."
Hurd is polling at less than 1% in most national surveys.
The next day, speaking to reporters, Sununu said again that it's incumbent on anti-Trump Republicans to pick a horse sooner than later.
"We have a responsibility to do that and not repeat what happened in 2016," he said. "And if we have the discipline to do that, Trump is in trouble. There’s no doubt about it. One-on-one he’s in — he’d be in real trouble. But it’s up to the party and those candidates to have the discipline to ensure that that happens.”
But Sununu's tune has changed a little since last November, when he told NBC News that he didn't believe Trump would be the nominee. Back then, he said he was worried that Trump's presence could deny the eventual nominee a convincing victory in the battle for convention delegates.
"We can't just drag this on with 20 candidates into many states and let us be completely divided whoever the nominee is, and, obviously, I don't think it's gonna be Trump," he said. "Whoever the nominee is, you don't want them to get through with 35% of the vote or 20% of the vote."
Sununu's op-ed follows a similar piece that 2012 Republican nominee Mitt Romney, who is now a Republican senator from Utah, wrote in the The Wall Street Journal last month. Romney urged donors to push out second-tier candidates.
During the 2016 primary, Republican Party elites also appealed to candidates, donors and voters to narrow the list of candidates to stop Trump. Despite losing Iowa to Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Trump won the nomination handily. But many Republicans are convinced that his name is toxic on the ballot following the party's midterm losses in 2018, Trump's defeat in 2020 and a disappointing 2022 midterm election in which the former president played a prominent role.