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Sununu Studies Senate Bid While Hassan Gears Up For Re-election

Courtesy photo

At NHPR, we’re aware that it’s July 2021. We just put the 2020 election and the legislative session behind us. But the midterm elections are coming in 2022 and it’s likely New Hampshire will have one of the marquee races in Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan’s re-election bid.

Losing that seat could serve a devastating blow to President Joe Biden’s agenda, as Democrats hold the U.S. Senate by the thinnest of margins. Hassan narrowly won her seat against Republican Kelly Ayotte in 2016. And all eyes are on Republican Gov. Chris Sununu as Hassan’s potential opponent. He hasn’t said he’s running. But he hasn’t ruled it out either. 

All Things Considered host Peter Biello talked with senior political reporter Josh Rogers to talk about Sununu and Hassan’s plans. 

Five takeaways from that conversation:

  • Sununu has the “right of first refusal,” and has the best chance of winning. National Republicans are pushing him to run. 
  • But Hassan is no slouch. She’s been in tough races before, including winning by about 1,000 votes against Ayotte in 2016. 
  • When portraying her work in D.C., she stressed her bipartisan work on Biden’s infrastructure deal or surprise medical bills.
  • The first midterm tends to be tough for the president’s party, which may make Hassan vulnerable.
  • Sununu doesn’t have to announce anything just now, and it doesn’t necessarily benefit him to do so. He’s attempted to distance himself from some conservative items included in the state budget, including a new ultrasound requirement for anyone getting an abortion in New Hampshire. 

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Peter Biello: This is All Things Considered on NHPR, I'm Peter Biello. New Hampshire's next U.S. Senate race pits incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan against, well, someone - maybe Governor Chris Sununu, who hasn't said he's running but hasn't ruled it out. Sununu is seen as the GOP's best hope to beat Hassan and maybe flipping the Senate back to Republican control. If Sununu jumps in, the race would be among the most closely watched in the country. With me now to discuss the state of play is NHPR's senior political reporter Josh Rogers. Hey, Josh.

Josh Rogers: Good afternoon, Peter.

Peter Biello: Josh, lots of people see New Hampshire's Senate race as one of a handful that could decide Senate control in 2022. But as of right now, we have one candidate, the incumbent, Maggie Hassan. So, how did the governor emerge as the GOP's top recruit?

Josh Rogers: Well, winning statewide election three times, the Sununu name doesn't hurt, winning most recently in a landslide, high poll numbers and pretty broad respect for the way he handled the COVID pandemic. You know, the thinking here and in Washington is that Governor Sununu has what amounts to a right of first refusal in this race. Other Republican candidates could get in. But if Sununu does, he almost certainly would have the best chance of defeating Hassan, and that's why he's being counted on by national Republicans and already targeted by Democrats.

Peter Biello: But for now, at least, he's not a candidate, Senator Maggie Hassan is. She's completing her first term. What's she up to?

Josh Rogers: Well, basically, Maggie Hassan is doing the things you'd expect someone in her position to do. She's stressing her work in D.C., talking up taking a bipartisan approach to issues faced by Granite Staters, be they things like surprise medical bills or pushing for an infrastructure deal that could send the state billions. So Hassan's keeping her head down. But that isn't to say she's not quite mindful about launching a reelection campaign, that's been staffed up. And she's also raising money at a record breaking clip for New Hampshire. And while there have been plenty of talk about Sununu having never lost a race, Hassan's no slouch when it comes to winning. She's also won three times statewide. Her win over Kelly Ayotte six years ago was by fewer than 1,000 votes. So, she's been in tough high-profile races before. And this one could be very tough. There's a political climate. Midterms can be tough on the party that holds the White House, and if Sununu does run, she'll be facing a very well-known and pretty popular rival.

Peter Biello: Now, Sununu is telling people he's thinking about his next move - Senate, another run for governor, maybe the private sector - and then he plans to take his time, maybe even wait until next year to decide. So what do you make of that?

Josh Rogers: I guess, several things. I think that the governor probably can afford to wait, even though he would have to start raising money from scratch as a federal candidate he can't roll over his gubernatorial campaign account. Given the stakes this race money will flow towards him directly and in the form of dark money spending on his behalf. And, you know, the same really goes for Maggie Hassan should Sununu get in this race. Another thing is that Sununu is probably rightly leery of seeming too eager to become a Senate candidate. As anyone who's spent time listening to him knows, he always likes to keep D.C. at at least a putative distance. You know, "Every member of Congress should be fired" is one of his favorite lines. And Sununu clearly relishes and, you know, I think the polling would bear out that he probably benefits politically when he's sort of in a New Hampshire cheerleader mode. You know, "I'm just thinking about the 603," et cetera. And it's harder to do that sort of thing credibly as a declared candidate for federal office, or really even someone acknowledging that they're looking seriously at running.

Peter Biello: But with the legislature out of Concord, this is the time when people start to really ask these questions, isn't it?

Josh Rogers: Definitely. Just today, the New Hampshire Democratic Party launched an initiative to tie the governor to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. Basically what Democrats want to do is cast Sununu as scheming to be some sort of McConnell pawn. That's the pitch they're making. And, you know, Democrats are going to keep that up. And even though the governor hasn't announced any decision yet, if you listen closely to how Sununu is talking these days, you can almost hear him workshopping ways to discuss issues that are likely to define any 2022 campaign for him, the stuff he wants to promote, things like the tax cuts in the state budget, the status of the state's rainy day account, the voluntary paid leave plan that he got through after some difficulty this year.

Peter Biello: And does that also go for some of the tougher issues like the abortion restrictions that he signed last month?

Josh Rogers: It does. The legislature has put him in a tough position in a way by passing some seriously conservative bills. And abortion could be particularly tricky, given that Sununu pitches himself as being pro-choice and he will be facing a female candidate who supports abortion rights. And in some ways, the governor is already distancing himself from this issue. He is fully in support of the ban on abortion after 24 weeks, he says, but he's already saying that he'd be open to considering a repeal of the mandatory ultrasound provision for abortions that was in the state budget, and if he runs, he certainly knows that this is an issue on which Democrats will spend millions, particularly if we end up in a situation where he and Hassan are fighting over the center of the electorate in a race that could determine the balance of the Senate.

Peter Biello: All right. So, Josh, put on your betting hat. Who do you think's going to win this race?

Josh Rogers: We still don't know who's going to be in the race yet. But if the governor does get in, it's going to be a big race. And I would be willing to say we are still a very, very long ways from Election Day.

Peter Biello: We certainly are. NHPR's senior political reporter Josh Rogers, thanks for speaking with me.

Josh Rogers: You're welcome Peter.

Peter Biello: And this is All Things Considered on NHPR.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
Peter Biello is the host of All Things Considered and Writers on a New England Stage at New Hampshire Public Radio. He has served as a producer/announcer/host of Weekend Edition Saturday at Vermont Public Radio and as a reporter/host of Morning Edition at WHQR in Wilmington, North Carolina.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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