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New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu says he will not run for Senate, a blow to GOP hopes

Sununu, a top Republican Senate recruit for 2022, said he instead will seek another term as governor.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu announced Tuesday that he will not run for the Senate next year, delivering a blow to Republicans' chances of regaining control of the chamber.

Sununu said at a news conference in Concord that he would instead seek a fourth two-year term as governor.

"My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington. It is to the citizens of New Hampshire," he said. "I'd rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than just slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results. That's why I'm going to run for a fourth term.

"And I'd be honored if the people in New Hampshire would elect me again as their governor," he added. "We have a lot more to do to protect the interests of New Hampshire citizens. And it's just clear that I can be most effective doing that."

GOP leaders from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky to Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, the chair of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, had been courting Sununu to challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan, seeing him as their best prospect to flip a seat. Democrats control the 50-50 Senate with Vice President Kamala Harris' tiebreaking vote.

Scott had said several times in recent months that he thought Sununu would run. Sununu held his decision close, telling reporters Tuesday that McConnell and Scott had had no notice.

Sununu said later Tuesday in a telephone interview that he had since traded messages with Scott.

"You never want to let people down, because a lot of people put a lot of pressure and expectation on it," Sununu said. "But at the end of the day, I just have to do what I believe is the best thing for the citizens in New Hampshire. This is my top priority, not that malaise of Washington."

Sununu's decision adds to the pressure on Republicans, whose chances of taking back the Senate rest on defending open seats next year in Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio and Missouri while flipping at least one Democratic-held seat from a list of states that includes Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.

Polls have found that Hassan could be vulnerable to a strong challenge. A recent survey from the University of New Hampshire found her in close hypothetical races against Sununu and Don Bolduc, who lost a 2020 Senate primary and has already launched a 2022 campaign.

"Sen. 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," Hassan campaign manager Aaron Jacobs said in an emailed statement.

Sununu, 47, has remained relatively popular in New Hampshire while avoiding the snug embrace that many in the GOP have offered to former President Donald Trump. And — thanks to his three terms as governor and a father and a brother who were elected to statewide office before him — Sununu's name is recognizable to nearly every voter in the state.

Joseph Swain, 8, fills up a cup of lemonade for New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu outside the Heritage Farm Pancake House in Sanbornton on July 15. John Tully for NBC News

But Sununu had struggled with his decision. In interviews last summer, he expressed reservations about whether the executive power he has as governor was worth trading for one of 100 Senate seats in hyperpartisan Washington. He also wondered how the job would affect his family — he and his wife have three school-age children.

"The more I heard about the opportunities that would be there to lead — and there are opportunities, to be sure — and what the day-to-day entails, it's so different," Sununu said Tuesday, saying he most appreciated advice from Republican former governors, including Scott, Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah and former President George W. Bush.

Republican Glenn Youngkin's victory last week in Virginia's race for governor buoyed GOP optimism that candidates who don't run as champions of Trumpism can win on their own personalities and policy agendas. Like Youngkin, Sununu has kept a distance from Trump.

Sununu also signaled sharp disagreements with the ideological and personality-driven politics that Trump and his right-wing GOP supporters practice. Last month, for example, he clashed with other Republicans in New Hampshire and voiced his frustration after GOP members of the state's Executive Council blocked federal funding to assist with Covid-19 vaccinations. And although Sununu twice voted for Trump, he has been candid about his disagreements with the former president. Unlike other Republicans who audition for Trump's endorsement by parroting false claims that the 2020 election was stolen from him, Sununu quickly acknowledged President Joe Biden as the legitimate winner.

Trump hadn't weighed in publicly on Sununu's prospective candidacy, but he raised eyebrows in September by issuing a statement that complimented Bolduc.

Trump, who hasn't ruled out running for president again in 2024, maintains a hold over the GOP base. In the telephone interview, Sununu said the nationalized tenor of a Senate contest — in which he might have been expected to weigh in on Trump more — wasn't a factor in his decision.

"You know, 99 out of 100 times when someone's talking about Trump, it's the media," he said. "It's not candidates, and it's not elected officials. I know that's the juicy thing they want to kind of stir the pot with, but folks that are actually on the ground and doing their job and running for office and working as elected officials, that's not what we're talking about every day."

A reporter at Tuesday's news conference, who noted that if Sununu wins re-election next year he would be a four-term governor, asked whether he has ruled out running for president. New Hampshire traditionally holds the first presidential primary, which makes Sununu an intriguing prospect.

"I haven't ruled out going to Washington — just not as senator right now," Sununu said.

"I would go to Washington," he added, "but it has to be in a position, in a management, in a form that fits where I can best serve."