New Hampshire Poll Shows Trouble for Biden, and Possibilities for Governor Sununu

Sununu has carefully carved a path for himself as a fiscally conservative, moderate Republican who eschews partisanship in a deep purple state.

AP/Charles Krupa, file
Governor Sununu at a NASCAR Cup Series auto race July 18, 2021. AP/Charles Krupa, file

Nobody is yet saying New Hampshire’s Republican governor is running for president, but if he decided to challenge President Biden in 2024 he would be a formidable candidate, at least according to a recent NH Journal poll.

“The poll shows one thing: that President Biden is in serious trouble,” a veteran Republican strategist, David Carney, tells the Sun. The poll shows Governor Sununu trouncing Mr. Biden by a 53 percent to 34 margin. Mr. Carney says the governor would run only if there was a clear path to victory: “He wouldn’t want a clown show effort.”

Some 55 percent of New Hampshire registered voters “disapprove of the way President Biden is doing his job,” according to the April 14 NH Journal poll. And 64 percent say the country is “on the wrong track.” Inflation and high gas prices top the list of voter concerns.

Mr. Biden “would lose to any Republican running for office,” a New Hampshire GOP strategist, Michael Dennehy, tells the Sun. “I don’t think it says too much for Chris Sununu.”

Yet even amid high inflation and gas prices, Mr. Sununu enjoys a 60 percent favorability rating among his state’s registered voters, according to a March New Hampshire Institute of Politics poll. Among “swing” voters, 62 percent approve “of the way Governor Sununu is doing his job.”

The governor himself was dismissive of the NH Journal poll, telling the Sun it was “flattering but it doesn’t mean anything.”

Mr. Sununu has carefully carved a path for himself as a fiscally conservative, moderate Republican who eschews partisanship in a deep purple state. When the Republican-controlled state legislature passed a redistricting map last month creating one solidly Republican and one Democrat congressional district, Mr. Sununu vowed to veto it, and then sent back his own redistricting map that was said to ensure both districts remain competitive.

“Mr. Sununu is popular and that unusual thing, a vigorous moderate conservative who appears to have actual intellectual commitments,” columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in the Wall Street Journal.

An engineer with a degree from MIT, Mr. Sununu first entered politics in 2011 as a member of the state’s elected Executive Council. He was perhaps always bound for politics, as his older brother was a U.S. senator and his father, John, is a former New Hampshire governor and White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush.

Mr. Sununu seemingly has been living up to one stated priority of his administration since the onset of the pandemic: “balancing public health and economic success.” In March, Wallethub rated New Hampshire’s Covid-19 workforce recovery no. 1 in the nation. New Hampshire’s unemployment rate sits at fifth lowest in the nation, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.  

The issue on which Mr. Sununu may be most vulnerable is abortion. He calls himself pro-choice, and when he ran for governor in 2020 said he was “not looking to make any changes” on abortion law. Yet last June he signed a budget that includes a provision criminalizing abortion after 24 weeks gestation, including in cases of rape and incest.

The Democratic Party has hit Mr. Sununu hard: “Chris Sununu is lying. He is anti-choice,” the New Hampshire Democratic Party tweeted. 

Mr. Sununu’s pro-choice stance may hurt him on the right as well as he runs for his fourth two-year term as governor. This past week, the state legislature passed a bill adding exceptions to the abortion law in cases of fatal fetal defects and amended the provision’s ultrasound requirement. Mr. Sununu says he will sign it.

“He is not a conservative Republican,” Mr. Dennehy says, terming Mr. Sununu’s abortion stance and his support for government funding of Planned Parenthood “almost a disqualifier.”

Nevertheless, the governor is maintaining his position in the middle, which may hurt him in partisan politics but aligns him with a plurality of Americans, 48 percent of whom think abortion should be legal with some limits, according to Gallup.

Mr. Sununu made headlines earlier this month when he called President Trump “f—ing crazy” at the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., where politicians are expected to roast each other. He later appeared on MSNBC to clarify that his comments were “jokes” and to say he’s “not anti-anything,” in reference to Mr. Trump.

He thus again walks the middle line: neither pro-Trump nor against him. That is working for him in New Hampshire; whether it would play nationally is another story.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee tried to recruit Mr. Sununu to run against his state’s vulnerable Democratic senator, Maggie Hassan, this year. Mr. Sununu declined, saying he didn’t want to “end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results.” 

Some in New Hampshire politics see Mr. Sununu’s refusal to run for Senate as an indication that he has his eyes on a bigger prize: the presidency.

Regardless, “the whole presidential playing field is still entirely uncertain until Trump makes a decision,” Mr. Dennehy cautions. 

Mr. Carney concurs: It is “very premature for anybody to be judging the race in ’24.”  He called speculation at this point “fool’s gold.”

CAROLINE MCCAUGHEY
CAROLINE MCCAUGHEY

Ms. McCaughey is a native New Yorker now based in New Hampshire. Her interests include politics, drug policy, and counterculture.

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