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For Gov. Sununu, Growing Relationship With Pence Has Its Benefits


As Dave Carney tells it, September of 1982 was a rough time for John H. Sununu’s campaign for governor.

“We we were broke,” Carney, a longtime political strategist, recalled recently. “We had no money, we couldn’t pay staff. Not that he paid very much anyways…”


Carney worked on that campaign, and after a grueling Republican primary, he said they needed to scrounge up some cash to get on television before the general election against Democratic incumbent Governor Hugh Gallen.

So, the elder Sununu called in a favor: He asked then Vice President George H. W. Bush to do a fundraiser for him in New Hampshire.

“Without Vice President Bush taking a risk and coming up here and doing that, we would not have won,” Carney said. “That infusion of funds allowed us to keep the attack up.”

And this is the situation John H. Sununu’s son Chris, New Hampshire’s current governor, could find himself in this week.

Vice President Mike Pence will travel to New Hampshire Thursday afternoon to headline a re-election campaign fundraiser for Sununu, a visit local Republican strategists said could benefit Pence as much as the incumbent Governor.

Pence will speak before a $500 a plate dinner at the Manchester Downtown Hotel on Elm Street. The invitation also gives supporters the option to pay $2,500 for two dinner seats and a photo opportunity with the Vice President.

According to Politico’s reporting, Pence has reportedly been donating to a handful of Republican governors through his Great America Committee PAC.

Pence and Sununu have met privately multiple times since the election. Their growing relationship is one that many local Republican strategists see as a “huge advantage” for a small state like New Hampshire, even with the backdrop of an administration as polarizing as the Trump White House.

'Look, if you’re gonna pay the penance, commit the sin. I mean, the Democrats are going to attack him as being a stooge for the Trump administration anyway, so he might as well get whatever benefit he can.' - Former N.H. GOP Chair Fergus Cullen

Whether it’s the opioid crisis, Medicaid expansion or a flood, Carney said getting stuff done in New Hampshire requires help from the White House, and “there’s not money for every state.”

“When they go to give out grants, they’ll say well, this governor gave me the middle finger and just trashes me all the time, or this governor is willing to work with me,” he said.

According to Carney, it was the Bush fundraiser in New Hampshire that laid the foundation for the personal and governmental relationship between John H. Sununu and eventual President George H. W. Bush.

Sununu later became Bush’s Chief of Staff from 1989-1992.

But a governor isn’t the only person who can benefit from a political relationship with the Vice President. Having an ally in New Hampshire like Sununu could be helpful for President Trump’s 2020 re-election campaign, or a potential Pence run in the future.

Tom Rath, a longtime Republican strategist and former New Hampshire attorney general, said there has always been “special attention paid” by the White House to a state like New Hampshire.

“If there’s ever gonna be a [political] challenge to a sitting president, it would start in New Hampshire. It would by the calendar and it would because of the involvement of independent voters in a New Hampshire primary,” Rath said.

Rath can easily tick off examples of when a candidate from a current President’s own party gave them a scare in a New Hampshire primary: Pat Buchanan snuck up on the first President Bush in 1992, and in 1968, Gene McCarthy gave President Lyndon Johnson a run for his money.

An invitation for the fundraiser was sent out in February

Pence’s fundraising visit comes on the heels of Republican Sen. Jeff Flake’s visit to Saint Anselm last Friday. Flake has been an outspoken critic of Trump, and hasn’t ruled out running in 2020. President Trump came to New Hampshire on Monday to talk about the opioid crisis, and Republican Governor John Kasich, a 2016 presidential candidate, is set to visit in April.

But some political relationships also have the potential to alienate certain voters.

There is, of course, a larger story going on around elections this year, and it’s about how voters' feelings about President Trump impact local races.

Sununu is very popular in New Hampshire, but a recent University of New Hampshire Granite State poll shows that half of the people who say they support the governor, don’t support Donald Trump.

As a self-proclaimed "Never Trumper" and former NH GOP chair, Fergus Cullen fits that category. He said he would “absolutely not” be attending Sununu’s fundraiser with Pence.

“I’ve got no interest in seeing anyone associated with the Trump administration, I am just completely disgusted. I support the governor, I would like to see him re-elected but I want nothing to do with this administration at all,” Cullen said.

Despite his disdain for Trump - and Pence by association - Cullen said he was not surprised to see Sununu welcomed fundraising help from the Vice President.

“Look, if you’re gonna pay the penance, commit the sin. I mean, the Democrats are going to attack him as being a stooge for the Trump administration anyway, so he might as well get whatever benefit he can,” Cullen said.

Credit Twitter
New Hampshire Democratic activists have repeatedly tied Sununu to Pence in posts on social media

As Cullen sees it, there is no political benefit for Republican office holders to pretend like the Trump administration doesn’t exist. The recent UNH poll also shows a sizable portion of New Hampshire Republicans are big supporters of Donald Trump.

As for Vice President Pence, White House officials said he’s expected to be in the state for the later half of Thursday afternoon, landing at the Manchester airport around 3:30pm.

He’s expected to speak at a tax policy event in Manchester hosted by the pro-Trump group America First Policies.

White House officials said Governor Sununu and former Republican U.S. Senator Kelly Ayotte are also expected to attend.


Lauren is a Senior Reporter/Producer for NHPR's narrative news unit, Document.
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