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How new conflict over N.H.'s COVID-19 response deepened old divides within state GOP

Protesters are arrested at the Executive Council meeting, Oct. 13, 2021. The protests over COVID-19 policy, much of it fueled by disinformation, has deepened existing divides within the New Hampshire Republican Party.
Alli Fam
New Hampshire Public Radio
Protesters are arrested at the Executive Council meeting, Oct. 13, 2021. The protests over COVID-19 policy, much of it fueled by disinformation, has deepened existing divides within the New Hampshire Republican Party.

The response to the COVID-19 pandemic in New Hampshire has broken down along partisan lines since close to the pandemic's beginning. But in recent weeks, divisions about COVID mitigation have been most conspicuous within the state Republican Party.

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This discord — often inflamed by misinformation and conspiracy theories — is a growing political challenge for Gov. Chris Sununu, as he tries to manage the state’s response and consider his own political future.

In his nearly five years in the corner office, Sununu has never clashed with fellow Republicans the way he has now. COVID policy has become the major point of friction between Sununu, who likes to sell his brand of Republicanism as data-driven, and veteran GOP officials, who Sununu spent much of the past few weeks deriding as delusional.

“They don’t understand, and they are getting all emotional, and listening to social media nonsense and repeating it as elected officials, so that was incredibly frustrating and I had to shut it down hard,” Sununu said on WGIR radio last week, dismissing fellow Republicans on the Executive Council as inhabiting “bizarro world.”

Sununu made those comments just a day after Republican Executive Councilors rejected millions of dollars in federal money meant to boost vaccination efforts. To justify their decision, they cited concerns about mandates and the influence of the federal government over state policy.

Earlier in the month, he said he felt “some sense of embarrassment on behalf of the entire state” after a top House Republican lawmaker shared conspiracy theories about the pandemic.

But Sununu hasn’t always been so blunt in assessing the behavior of people who oppose his views on COVID policy. As recently as last month, Sununu defended people who opposed COVID vaccines: not on the grounds that it’s a matter of personal choice, but because he respected their decision as one inevitably driven by logic.

“People in New Hampshire are incredibly smart,” Sununu said at the time. “They do their research. You have to respect that. These are not people just sitting in the dark.”

That respect seems fleeting now. The decision last week by the Republican-led Executive Council to reject $27 million in vaccine aid — even after an advisory memo from the state attorney general said the aid would not limit New Hampshire’s sovereignty —  erased whatever patience Sununu had for independent “research” on the pandemic.

Prior to that vote, state Health Commissioner Lori Shibinette told councilors that rejecting the money would come with consequences for individuals who want to be protected from COVID-19.

“It denies them easy access to the vaccination,” she said. “They would likely get access to the vaccination through a primary care office but those primary care offices would be inundated.”

Whether that happens remains to be seen. So too does the half-life of the political fallout for Sununu. But this was a reversal for a governor who sees his management of the pandemic as a crucial component in his high bipartisan approval ratings. And while anti-government critics have long derided Sununu’s COVID-19 policies as tyrannical. He now has newer antagonists, like GOP Executive Councilor Joe Kenney.

“I think Chris Sununu always wants to get it his way, and the whole purpose of the council is to push back once in a while and say, ‘There are other voices out there that need to be heard,’ ” Kenny said.

Those other voices, these days, increasingly include the crowds of protesters, many motivated by conspiracy theories, who have begun calling for Sununu’s impeachment over his COVID-19 policies.

Outside last week’s Executive Council meeting was Don Bolduc, a potential future rival, should Sununu mount a run for U.S. Senate next year. Bolduc, a Republican, is already in that race. And he says he’s pushing to limit Sununu’s agency as governor.

“I ask the legislators in leadership positions: stop giving him the power, take it away from him. Make him work for us, not the other way around,” Bolduc said.

For Sununu, getting it done on COVID-19 policy, at least with some members of his party, is a test, and one that could defy a data-driven approach.

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