My Turn: Would Sununu prefer a Republican Legislature?

  • Gov. Chris Sununu holds a news conference at Manchester-Boston Regional Airport to discuss the arrival of personal protective equipment from China on April 30. He was joined by inventor Dean Kamen (left) and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (right). AP

For the Monitor
Published: 9/12/2020 6:20:03 AM

At the state level, the 2016 election was an excellent election for New Hampshire Republicans. Republican majorities were returned to the Executive Council, state Senate and state House of Representatives. Making the victory complete, Gov. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, chose not to run for re-election and was replaced by Republican Chris Sununu.

In 2018, after two years of Gov. Sununu’s feckless leadership, the Republicans lost their majorities on the Executive Council, in the state Senate, and the state House of Representatives. New Hampshire voters, who tend to be kind to governors seeking re-election, re-elected Sununu, who thus avoided becoming only the second New Hampshire governor in 92 years denied re-election to a second term.

Gov. Sununu’s leadership of the Republican Party of New Hampshire is noteworthy primarily for its absence.

The notion that the governor and the Republican Party should work together around a set of principles and common goals, and that anything he could do to increase the Republican presence in the Legislature and Executive Council would be helpful, seemed – clearly in 2018 – not to intrude on Gov. Sununu’s reality.

Gov. Sununu seems to like to do things his way and leave it to the Republican Party of New Hampshire to either accommodate him – or not. It is clear that the governor prefers to decide when and if he will consider Republican Party sensibilities – something not possible when there is a Republican Senate majority leader and a Republican speaker of the House, but always an option when Republicans are in the minority.

Consider, for example, the 2017 debate surrounding Gov. Sununu’s first budget and in particular the general fund, which is the portion of the budget over which the state has the greatest control and is the best measure of the Legislature’s stewardship of the state’s finances.

The previous budget, approved by the Republican Legislature in 2015 for Gov. Hassan, increased general fund spending .9% in 2016 and another .9% in 2017, for a total increase of 1.8% for 2016 and 2017. In 2017 Gov. Sununu sought an increase in general fund spending of 7% in 2018 and another 3.3% in 2019, for a total increase of 10.3% for 2018 and 2019.

The Republican House of Representatives refused to approve the governor’s budget and it was sent to the Republican Senate without having been passed. The Senate and the Committee of Conference reduced the totals from the 10.3% increase the governor sought to a 9.6% increase – an increase of $272,067,037.

After much arm twisting, the House finally passed the budget. When considering significantly increasing expenditures, it might be worth remembering that a few years ago Connecticut was the wealthiest state in the nation and today, thanks in large measure to profligate spending, it is a financial wreck. Politicians can always make a case for more spending.

It’s also noteworthy that in the spring of 2018, Gov. Sununu’s re-election campaign committee had in excess of $1 million in contributions. At the same time the New Hampshire Republican Party, whose chair he had appointed, was completely out of funds and forced to solicit funds from the Republican county committees, which had been building their treasuries to support their state and local candidates. Did it never occur to Gov. Sununu that some of his contributors would be willing to support him by supporting the party he led? Unhappily, the question answers itself.

In the 2018 elections Gov. Sununu’s most important and telling political failures were his efforts on behalf of the party’s most important candidates, which were unimpressive or usually non-existent. Many of our most important candidates lost by tiny margins. Had the governor evinced the slightest interest, the New Hampshire Senate might still be Republican. It must be emphasized that, absent the political environment he helped create, Gov. Sununu would almost certainly not be casting the many vetoes he uses to demonstrate his indispensability to Republican voters.

Following the 2018 elections, Gov. Sununu faced an entirely different political landscape. Two things were clear. First, Democrats were determined to press their agenda and second, there exists a large body of Republicans who willingly accept his demonstrated indifference to the NHGOP.

Gov. Sununu seems entirely comfortable in this political environment and happily limits his obligation to his party to exercising vetoes and appearing at occasional functions, while insisting that the NHGOP support and defend him at every opportunity. It is difficult to escape the conclusion that – in spite of his sub-par political performance – Gov. Sununu can, and does, take Republican support for granted. He may occasionally endorse Republican candidates and appear in their fliers with them but, if the 2018 elections are any guide, that’s about as far as it’s going to go. The governor has seemingly reserved any significant use of his political capital for himself.

In the Sept. 8 primary, Gov. Sununu faced a challenge from Karen Testerman, a well-known and highly regarded Republican. True to form, and in spite of its rule requiring neutrality in primaries, the NHGOP released a glowing statement on the occasion of Gov. Sununu’s filing for re-election titled, “Two more years of Governor Chris Sununu’s leadership.” No mention was made of Karen Testerman’s filing – of which the NHGOP was well aware – earlier in the week.

Gov. Sununu’s recent regular appearances on WMUR, his appointment of commissions to wrestle with contentious issues, his generally genial demeanor, and the fact that New Hampshire voters (knowing our state’s political structure places significant limits on a governor’s powers) don’t seem to expect much, have combined to make Gov. Sununu’s current approval levels impressive.

That being the case, unless the governor changes his attitude and makes significant use of his political capital to assist Republican candidates, I would hope that those who believe in Republican principles realize that adding to Gov. Sununu’s re-election margin will only encourage and further enable his overly self-centered political behavior.

(Jim McConnell of North Swanzey, a Republican, is a former state representative from Cheshire District 12. He is not a candidate this year.)

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