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'The charm on the charm bracelet': Sununu makes friends as he rides political circuit

Gov. Chris Sununu speaking last month to a Republican club in Florida.
C-SPAN
Gov. Chris Sununu speaking last month in Florida to a local Republican club.

For a governor who’s often loath to suggest he much likes anyplace outside what he calls “the 603,” Chris Sununu sure seemed happy during a recent visit to Florida.

“I’m having a ball,” Sununu told members of the Naples Republican committee at a local country club last month. “New Hampshire always comes first, always my top priority, but we are having a ball. We are going to keep out there. We need the army. I want this message to go really viral.”

Sununu’s message in Naples, which he’s also been delivering on D.C. talk shows and conservative confabs nationwide in recent months, is that the GOP needs to reaffirm its commitment to core principles: limited government, local control, and individual responsibility. A corollary, sometimes implied, and sometimes spelled out, is that the Trump era is — or ought to be — over.

“It’s kind of the antithesis of the American spirit to settle for yesterday’s news," Sununu said on NBC’s Meet The Press last week. “We want the next generation.”

How that argument — and Sununu himself — plays for national Republicans if he runs for president remains to be seen. But what amounts to his stump speech these days — a call for Republican unity and a big tent, with little attention to the nitty-gritty of public policy — appeared to go over fine in Naples.

“He talks down to earth, and his message was positive and motivating,” said longtime GOP activist Priscilla Grannis, who sat at Sununu’s table at the Kensington Golf and Country Club in Naples. "I would love to be in New Hampshire and be his friend.”

Glen Brown, a retired lawyer who also sat at Sununu’s table in Naples, said the governor hit traditional conservative themes from the podium, and proved easy company during dinner.

“It was really just a lighthearted conversation,” Brown recalled. “I think he told me he owns a Mustang maybe, so I mentioned I had bought a Mustang Mach-E.”

Gov. Chris Sununu has travelled across the country in the past year as he tests the water for a potential presidential run in 2024.
Sara Plourde
/
NHPR
Gov. Chris Sununu has travelled across the country in the past year as he tests the waters for a potential presidential run in 2024.

Lots of options

But Sununu isn’t just working over country club Republicans in Florida these days. He’s also been to Iowa, set to host the first contest of the 2024 GOP presidential primary. There, he lent a hand to an organization, Run GenZ, that aims to motivate younger Republicans around the country.

That particular appearance came with some help from one of Sununu’s biggest political assets: his last name.

Joe Mitchell, who runs Run GenZ, said the governor’s father John H. Sununu — a former governor and White House chief of staff — suggested his son speak to the group. The elder Sununu sits on Run GenZ’s board of advisors.

Mitchell said during the Sununus' visit over the summer, the current governor pitched in at a candidate training event and spoke at a dinner in Des Moines. Mitchell said Sununu went over fine in Iowa. But he stressed there are already options for Republicans thinking about the next presidential race.

“We have folks in our coalition who are supporters of President Trump, and Gov. DeSantis, and Nikki Haley, and even Gov. Sununu,” Mitchell said.

A political honeymoon phase

So far, the segment of the political world where Sununu may be generating the most interest isn’t among activist or donor class Republicans. It may be among the national media.

For months now, Sununu has been a popular subject of the political press. The coverage has mostly been personality-driven profiles, which generally peg him as a symbol of post-Trump GOP possibility, and give little attention to his actual governing record.

In many of these settings — including increasingly regular appearances on Sunday morning talk shows — Sununu appears more poised to play the role of political pundit than working governor.

“He’s an interesting person for the moment we are in, talking about issues and about a return to a time in politics that we think as, quote-unquote, ‘normal,’ ” said Evan Smith, former editor of the Texas Tribune.

Smith will be interviewing Sununu on stage Sunday in Austin at the South by Southwest festival event hosted by The Atlantic. Sununu will take the stage to discuss the future of Republicanism, not long after former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is interviewed about the “future of global democracy.”

Smith says he plans to ask Sununu about his effort to walk the line between the GOP’s “Never Trump” and “Ever Trump” factions.

“I noted with some interest his comment last weekend that President Trump will not be the nominee in 2024,” Smith said. “Not ‘may not be,’ not ‘might not be,’ not ‘should not be.’ He was declarative about it.”

Smith says, right now, Sununu is in what amounts to a honeymoon phase with the national media.

If he becomes a more credible and serious candidate, then I think you will see the national media scrutiny become greater,” Smith said. “But right now, I think there is still time for him to be the charm on the charm bracelet.”

In the meantime, expect Sununu’s national charm offensive to continue for the foreseeable future. He’s said he doesn’t plan on making up his mind on a presidential run until much later this year.

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