Politics / January 25, 2024

Chris Sununu, Loser

The governor of New Hampshire chose not to run as a favorite-son candidate against Trump, and instead bet on Nikki Haley. It was a bad bet.

John Nichols
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu watches as Nikki Haley campaigns in Franklin, NH, on January 22, 2024.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu watches as Nikki Haley campaigns in Franklin, N.H., on January 22, 2024.

(Jessica Rinaldi / The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu was, briefly, a 2024 Republican presidential prospect. If he had run as a Granite State “favorite son,” there’s a chance he could have beaten Donald Trump in his home state’s first-in-the-nation primary and altered the course of history.

But Sununu blinked. He didn’t run and, instead, placed a bad bet on former United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who on Tuesday lost the state’s primary to Trump by a 54-43 margin.

Sununu’s embrace of Haley was typically enthusiastic. But New Hampshire Republicans, who have historically been very supportive of Sununu—and members of his politically powerful family—were not prepared to join this particular crusade. According to exit polls, three-quarters of self-declared Republican voters backed Trump over Haley. And Sununu and Haley couldn’t get a sufficient number of independents to cast Republican ballots as part of a stop-Trump coalition.

That meant Trump left New Hampshire with bragging rights, as Haley struggled to assure donors that she was still a viable contender.

Sununu’s fumble was rooted in the fact that his campaigning on behalf of Haley was embarrassingly self-absorbed. The governor, who seems to have had second thoughts about his own decision to forgo the 2024 race, made himself as much of a candidate as his endorsee. There were days as the election approached when Sununu was getting more time on the cable networks than Haley, who shied away from the microphone-grabbing approach that helped Arizona Senator John McCain secure breakthrough victories in the New Hampshire Republican primaries of 2000 and 2008.

It was Sununu who, to a far greater extent than Haley, ridiculed Trump as an aging and increasingly inept candidate, with the governor declaring as the primary approached that “Trump has no energy—the guy can barely read a teleprompter right now.” It was Sununu who ripped into South Carolina Senator Tim Scott, himself a failed presidential contender, for delivering a late-stage endorsement to the former president, announcing, “Nobody cares what Tim Scott thinks. If they did, he actually wouldn’t have been driven out of this race three months ago.” And when Haley bumbled a question about whether she liked campaigning in New Hampshire—telling a Politico reporter that she felt like she had to “grind it out every day” at “a massive sacrifice, personally, physically, emotionally”—it was Sununu who interrupted the conversation to get Haley back on track. And to rip into Trump, once more.

“Donald Trump is lucky if he has the energy to do two events a day. She’s out there doing 10 events,” said the governor, who added, “That energy—event after event after event—shows love of country, passion for making the entire country better, galvanizing everyone, and that’s what’s getting folks excited.”

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Actually, Haley wasn’t getting folks excited as the primary approached. And neither was Sununu, despite his prominent position as the sitting governor, the titular head of the state Republican Party, the son of a former New Hampshire governor, and the brother of a former New Hampshire senator.

Just as Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds failed in her bid to deliver a victory for Florida Governor Ron DeSantis in the first-caucus state, so Sununu failed to deliver a victory for Haley in the first primary state.

Why? Because Trump owns the GOP at this point. That has allowed him to upend the traditional political calculus. He doesn’t need governors or members of Congress to back up his bid for the nomination. If anything, because of his penchant for endorsing the primary rivals of Republicans who cross him, the GOP’s elected leaders need Trump — which is why so many of them have already endorsed the former president, and why so many of them will do so after the New Hampshire results sink in.

But there was something more deeply flawed in Sununu’s ardent advocacy for Haley.

Like Haley, he never had the courage to fully reject Trump.

Sure, Sununu got off some of the best lines of the campaign against Trump. He was far more slashing, far more stinging, far more to the point than Haley or the other Republicans who sought to depose the front-runner, telling a Fox News interviewer just before the primary, “This is not the Donald Trump of 2016, guys. If he is off the teleprompter, he can barely keep a cogent thought. That’s just fact…. I’ve worked with him very closely. He’s not the same guy. This is not Donald Trump when he had his fastball.”

Republicans, said Sununu, should recognize that “this guy’s nearly 80 years old. Thank him for his service.”

But when asked if he would vote for Trump as the 2024 Republican nominee, Sununu, just like Haley, fell in line, letting his partisanship get the best of him—and, in so doing, badly muddling the pre-primary appeal to the independent voters who needed to take GOP primary ballots and vote for Haley. Yes, of course, Sununu said, he’d vote for the guy who “has lost the fastball.”

“I am going to support the Republican nominee, absolutely,” Sununu told CNN just before the primary. Even if Trump’s convicted on one or more of his 91 indictments, the governor said, “I think most of us are all going to support the Republican nominee—there’s no question. We all need Biden to lose.”

As it turned out, Biden didn’t lose. Even though he was not on the ballot and had to run a write-in campaign, Biden won the Democratic presidential primary with ease and—if the exit polls are right—is positioned to win over many of the voters who cast ballots for Haley.

So if Chris Sununu is searching for a New Hampshire loser, he might want to take a glance at the mirror.

John Nichols

John Nichols is a national affairs correspondent for The Nation. He has written, cowritten, or edited over a dozen books on topics ranging from histories of American socialism and the Democratic Party to analyses of US and global media systems. His latest, cowritten with Senator Bernie Sanders, is the New York Times bestseller It's OK to Be Angry About Capitalism.

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