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Sununu Is Busy On Campaign Trail, But Not Just On His Own Behalf

Messner for Senate campaign
Gov. Chris Sununu (right) has appeared in a TV ad for Republican Senate candidate Corky Messner, one of several GOP candidates seeking a boost from the governor this campaign season.

Gov. Chris Sununu may be seeking a third term in the corner office, but he’s spending a good deal of his political energy these days boosting other candidates.  To see some of that in action, you don’t even need to leave your couch.

Recent campaign ads featured Sununu talking up Republican Senate candidate Corky Messner (“he’s one of us,” Sununu assures viewers), and Republican congressional candidate Matt Mowers (“I’m voting for him,” the governor tells the camera.)

Appearances like these are a measure of Sununu’s stature -- within his party and with voters. Both Mowers and Messner basically moved to New Hampshire to seek office. So Sununu vouching for them means something: It’s a bet that the governor’s popularity might be transferable.

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Sununu is New Hampshire’s most successful GOP politician in a generation: undefeated in five races, twice statewide. Not a single 2020 poll has suggested he’ll do anything other than win reelection comfortably next week. Yet, talk to voters, and the idea that a Sununu endorsement will necessarily make his supporters back other candidates isn’t easy to quantify.

Susan Parker was in the crowd at a recent Mike Pence campaign rally in Portsmouth. Parker, who lives in Greenland, is a registered Republican. She said she turned out to see Pence because she was curious. She wore a Corky Messner sticker on her coat but didn’t seem excited about it.

“Well, there was some nice little lady who just stuck them on everyone coming in,” she explained when I asked about the Messner sticker.

When I asked if she’d be voting for Messner, she seemed even less enthusiastic: “I’m not going to tell you.”

Parker’s commitment to discretion extended nearly ballot wide. She wouldn’t talk about her preference for president, or Congress, or Senate. But she suddenly got chatty when I brought up the governor’s race.

“I’m very much in favor of Governor Chris Sununu, and another term,” she said. “That I will tell you.”

Polling would indicate there could be plenty of voters like Parker: fully supportive of Sununu, but maybe less sure about their other Republican options. The specter of President Trump – who has endorsed Messner and Mowers – looms over New Hampshire’s federal races this year. But in down-ballot contests, the backing of a popular governor could boost Republicans, and Sununu appears to know it.

“What Gov. Sununu is doing in this election year is very similar to what we did with Governor (Steve) Merrill in 1994 – very effectively,” said GOP strategist Mike Dennehy, who worked for Merrill: the last Republican governor in New Hampshire to win reelection.

This year, Dennehy is advising Republican state Senate candidate Jason Syversen, one of a handful of Republican hopefuls who Sununu has campaigned with. Dennehy said, in 2020, having the governor’s support is a big plus for pretty much any Republican on the ballot, particularly ones who’ve never run before.

“When you are building up someone’s image, it is only going to help to have an association with Chris Sununu,” Dennehy said, “and having that undecided voter going in there and realize, ‘This is Governor Sununu’s guy.’ ”

And having more of his own people in the Legislature, and on the Executive Council, will help Sununu, should he win reelection. With stronger GOP support in the State House, Sununu might improve his often fractious relationship with lawmakers. And 2021 will be a redistricting year, in which the maps for House and Senate districts are redrawn for the next ten years. Which means State House control could shape the political landscape of not just the next two years in Concord, but the next decade.

That’s the kind of impact any governor would work to secure.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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