ALTON, N.H. — The fog refused to lift for New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu’s sunrise hike up Mount Major this month, hiding a usually glorious view of Lake Winnipesaukee.
At the summit, elevation 1,786 feet, Sununu’s political future remained equally unclear.
National Republicans see in him a popular governor who never got too close or too crosswise with former President Donald Trump — the perfect choice to help them win back the Senate if he challenges Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan in 2022. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., wants him to run. Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, who chairs the Senate GOP’s campaign arm, is practically begging. At a recent gathering of conservative activists, Scott asked those in the crowd to call Sununu directly and urge him to run.
“Everyone’s just kind of wondering,” Sununu said of his decision. “And I am, too.”
With a 50-50 split in the Senate, and with Vice President Kamala Harris holding the tie-breaking vote for Democrats, next year’s midterm elections are a crucial battle for control. Races for some of the most competitive seats are well underway.
Sununu, 46, feels less urgency and has more options. The son of a former New Hampshire governor, and the younger brother of a former senator, he has strong poll numbers and name-recognition that could fortify him against any Trump-friendly challenge from the right in a Senate primary. He could choose instead to seek a fourth consecutive two-year term as governor. Or he could return to the private sector, where he worked as an environmental engineer and ran his family’s ski resort.
But Sununu also is wrestling with tough questions.
How would a Senate campaign and career affect his wife and three children, ages 8, 15 and 17? Would being one of 100 senators be as fulfilling as running a state of 1.3 million people? And how does he, a relative moderate who at times has criticized Trump, fit into a party where accommodating the former president and his grievances — and, if you’re a senator, facing daily questions about Trump — is often required? Can Chris Sununu go to Washington and still be Chris Sununu?
“He's very much his own person,” Tom Rath, a former New Hampshire attorney general who remains influential in state Republican politics, said. “He's smart. He thinks things through.”
Rath and others expect a decision this summer, but Sununu has said that he could wait until winter. In interviews with NBC News over a July day in the Lakes Region that began with the hike, continued with visits to small businesses and ended with a boat ride on Winnipesaukee, he sounded torn.
“Folks legitimately are trying to show how being a legislator is very different,” Sununu said, referring to advice he’s received from Republican senators, including Scott, a former governor. “Just the concept that you can actually get stuff done. … It isn’t just, you go down there and you’re one of 100. That can happen and it does happen to a lot, but if you’re motivated and you give it 110 percent, you can really accomplish certain goals.”
Sununu’s busy day, one in a series of “Super 603 Days” of retail politicking and community outreach named for New Hampshire’s only area code, illustrated what he enjoys most about being governor: conversations with constituents, drop-ins at restaurants and produce markets, the power to requisition a state Marine Patrol boat for a casual cruise.
No photo request was too small. (Sununu and Lucky, a black labrador, will be featured in the next edition of a local auto repair shop’s calendar.) No price was too high. (He left one store with $42 worth of carrots, cauliflower and balsamic vinegar.)
Several people Sununu met throughout the day told him they were eager to vote for him — for governor again, for Senate or even for president. “I don't know if I’m running,” he invariably replied.
'We're New Hampshire people'
External pressure is nothing new for Sununu. He attended high school in Northern Virginia in the early 1990s when his father, John H. Sununu, served as President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff. Amid a scandal involving his father’s frequent travel on military planes, peers taunted Sununu with airplane sounds and motions, a friend recalled in “What Really Happened to the Class of '93,” a 2004 book by journalist and former classmate Chris Colin.
Those years stuck with Sununu, who spent time in the private sector before entering politics and winning a seat in 2010 on the New Hampshire Executive Council, which serves as a check on the governor. As recently as 2016, he said he had no interest in returning to Washington. He’s softened on that as he considers the Senate race, but he said he would not relocate his family if he runs and wins.
“We’re New Hampshire people,” he said. “So one of the things that I have to think about is the commute and how it affects family.”
Hassan, 63, could be vulnerable. A June poll by Saint Anselm College found that a 49 percent plurality of voters disapproved of her job performance. In the same survey, 68 percent approved of how Sununu is governing. And a University of New Hampshire poll released last week found that voters viewed Sununu more favorably than they did Hassan. When measured against each other in a hypothetical Senate race, Sununu and Hassan were statistically tied.
Sununu won a third term last year by 31 points, a victory Rath and others attribute to his leadership during the pandemic. The governor juggled stay-at-home orders and mask mandates while turning federal CARES Act money into the state’s Main Street Relief Fund. New Hampshire was also one of the first states to opt out of enhanced federal unemployment benefits, with Sununu instead offering up to $1,000 cash bonuses to those who returned to work.
Over a post-hike breakfast of pancakes and bacon at Heritage Farm in Sanbornton, Sununu noted how he and Hassan live in the same small town, Newfields, and said they have a cordial relationship. But he had a quick rejoinder when asked to make his case against Hassan.
“What’s the case for her?” he replied.
Hassan, who was governor herself in 2016 when she won election to the Senate, is staking her re-election bid in part on her efforts to help broker a bipartisan infrastructure deal. She also worked with Sen. Bill Cassidy, R-La., to win a provision ending surprise medical billing as part of a coronavirus relief package last year. In a Congress known for gridlock, these are the kinds of tangible achievements she can promote to voters.
“Since entering the Senate, I’ve worked across party lines to find common ground and get results on the top priorities I hear about from Granite Staters,” Hassan said in an emailed statement. “My focus in the Senate has always been delivering on the priorities of New Hampshire families — and I’ll continue to do that no matter who my opponent is."
Hassan’s allies are already on the attack. They point to the recently signed state budget, which includes a ban on abortions at 24 weeks, except for severe medical emergencies involving the mother, and prohibits public educators from teaching that someone might be “inherently racist, sexist or oppressive.”
The first item clashes with Sununu’s claims that he’s a rare elected Republican who supports abortion rights. The second, which ties into a national GOP-led debate over teaching concepts of systemic racism, prompted most of the members of the governor’s Council on Diversity and Inclusion to resign.
“He says he's pro-choice, but then he signs an abortion ban,” New Hampshire Democratic Party Chairman Ray Buckley said. “He says he is independent from Trump, but he enthusiastically supported him both in 2016 and 2020. I think the best description for him is a weasel.”
Sununu, who does not have line-item veto power, has tried to distance himself from the abortion measure. He maintains it wasn’t his idea, that he asked GOP lawmakers to remove it from the budget and put it in a separate bill, that the provision is nevertheless on par with other states, and that he still supports abortion rights.
“What we did was nothing radical by any means,” Sununu said.
Trump, the wild card
Sununu’s ambivalence about the Senate race shines particularly on the topic of Trump.
He has said he voted for Trump twice. He also has rebuked him on occasion, including last fall, after Trump declined to condemn white supremacists at a presidential debate. Sununu quickly acknowledged President Joe Biden’s victory last year and criticized Trump’s efforts to pressure officials in other states to subvert the election results in his favor.
Trump, who lost New Hampshire by 7 points in 2020, rarely came up as Sununu worked his way around the Lakes Region. But in the national conversation surrounding GOP politics and 2022 Senate races, Trump remains the irresistible force.
“I think you can go to governors all across the country — they've all chosen a path that they feel is right for them in their state,” said John E. Sununu, the governor’s older brother, who represented New Hampshire as a senator and congressman. “If you're running for the House or the Senate, you're dealing with national issues that are shaped by rhetoric and policies that emanate from Washington. And that's different. It's a little harder to control.”
Don Bolduc, a retired Army general who lost a Republican Senate primary last year, is already running for Hassan’s seat. He partially attributes Sununu’s landslide and Trump’s loss in the state to unsubstantiated claims of voting machine errors. He’s running as an unwavering Trump supporter.
“My advice to them,” Bolduc said of national Republicans clamoring for Sununu, “is to stay out of New Hampshire.”
For the moment, Trump is one of the few following that advice. Unlike in other states where he has vowed to exact revenge on Republicans who refuse to perpetuate his baseless claims of a stolen election, he has shown no interest in scaring away Sununu. One prominent Trump ally, Fox News commentator Sean Hannity, has publicly encouraged Sununu to challenge Hassan. Sununu said he hasn’t heard from Trump directly but does not expect the former president to cause him problems.
“We always had, I think, a very good understanding,” Sununu said. “I never surprised him with anything.”
As he dug into a plate of pulled pork and potato salad at Rubbin’ Butts BBQ in Center Harbor, Sununu lamented how Trump has inspired candidates and conspiracy theorists who care more about yelling on Fox News than advancing conservative ideas that once defined the party. He has thought about how he might elevate the discourse.
“If there’s a pathway to make that louder and more national, well, maybe there’s some value there,” he said.
Sununu then rolled his eyes at a comparison to Govs. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Larry Hogan of Maryland, fellow Republicans who’ve resisted the party’s push toward Trump. He considers both friends, but he also believes they made political calculations to suit their more liberal constituencies, in contrast to his approach.
“I think Hogan and Baker went out of their way: ‘Can I be first to bash former President Trump?’” Sununu said.
Later, at the bow of a state Marine Patrol boat cruising Lake Winnipesaukee, Sununu cracked a joke at Hogan’s expense while mentioning some of the Republican governors he speaks with regularly. As for Democrats, he said, “I talk to Larry Hogan.”
As the boat approached a sandbar, Sununu waved to surprised day-drinkers parked in their pleasure craft. An aide thought someone might toss him a beer. Wouldn’t be the first time, the governor said.
The skies had cleared. Sununu looked out on the horizon, still just kind of wondering.