Four months to Election Day, Sununu has history and poll numbers on his side

  • Gov. Chris Sununu files for re-election in mid-June. Paul Steinhauser / For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 7/8/2018 8:46:15 PM

Gov. Chris Sununu was in his element.

At the Airport Diner in Manchester in mid-June, the governor went from table to table, working the room as he chatted with customers.

Sununu, an affable, comfortable campaigner, said minutes earlier that he was “fired up” as his re-election campaign gets underway.

“I have a lot of passion for what I do. I have a lot of passion and I’m excited,” he said on the same day he filed for re-election.

Sununu, New Hampshire’s first Republican governor in a dozen years, is running for a second two-year term in the corner office. Energized New Hampshire Democrats are hoping to limit him to one term, but with just over four months to go until Election Day, Sununu appears to be in the driver’s seat, according to political experts in the state.

“Sometimes politics is simple: Chris Sununu is a popular governor presiding over a strong economy,” University of New Hampshire political science professor Dante Scala said. “He’s in a commanding position four months out from the election.”

The governor’s approval rating stood at 65 percent in a Saint Anselm College Survey Center poll conducted in late April and 59 percent in University of New Hampshire Survey Center Granite State Poll conducted earlier that month. And those results weren’t lost on Sununu.

“I think the numbers speak for themselves,” Sununu said. “Now we have to go out and close the deal.”

The UNH survey and a Suffolk University poll also conducted in April indicated that Sununu stood to beat either of the two Democratic candidates by more than 20 percentage points in hypothetical general election showdowns.

In recent weeks, those two candidates – former state senator Molly Kelly of Harrisville and former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, who’s making his second straight bid for governor – have fired away at Sununu.

Kelly took aim at the governor’s successful push last year to lower the state’s business taxes.

“We have a governor who’s giving tax breaks to wealthy corporations,” she said.

And at a recent forum, Marchand targeted the governor for taking contributions from Eversource, the energy company behind the controversial Northern Pass energy transmission project that would run power lines from Canada down through the middle of the state.

“Chris Sununu loves Northern Pass so much, it’s like he’s getting paid to love it. And it’s because he is. Tens of thousands of dollars,” Marchand said.

Both Kelly and Marchand have also targeted Sununu for not publicly criticizing the White House over its separation of families who entered the United States illegally and for the governor’s support of federal immigration checkpoints in New Hampshire.

With Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement giving GOP President Donald Trump a prime opportunity to replace the crucial swing vote on the high court with a reliable conservative justice – raising concerns that the court may overturn the landmark 1973 high court decision that protects abortion rights – both questioned Sununu’s commitment to women’s reproductive health rights.

“The governor has a history of waffling” on the issue, Kelly said.

A common thread by Kelly, Marchand and the New Hampshire Democratic Party has been to relentlessly tie Sununu to Trump, whose poll numbers are upside-down both nationally and in the Granite State.

Marchand claimed that the governor “made the decision to embrace Donald Trump at a time when some other Republican leaders around the country have decided to run away from him.”

Sununu told the Monitor that the Democrats’ strategy won’t work.

“We’re going to run on success. We’re going to run on reality. We’re going to run on results,” he said. “They’re going to run on Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, Trump, as if that’s really a viable message. It’s not.”

In recent weeks, Sununu has disagreed with the president on the controversial immigration policy at the U.S.-Mexican border, signing on with other governors in a largely symbolic pledge not to send National Guard members south.

“I will not send our New Hampshire troops to the southern border to separate families,” Sununu said.

And he pushed back against Trump’s tariffs on Canada and the European Union, calling them “absolutely disastrous.”

Instead, Sununu likes to highlight his tenure as governor.

“I think we’ve been incredibly successful the first 18 months,” he said.

Sununu pointed to accomplishments like funding full-day kindergarten with keno and emphasizing fixes to the state’s child welfare and mental health systems.

“We have the fastest-growing economy, the most successful economy New Hampshire’s had in a long, long time. We have more people working today than ever before. We have the lowest taxes in 20 years in this state,” he said.

His support for extending the state’s Medicaid expansion program for another five years, and his signing of a transgender-rights bill into law, have bipartisan appeal. So does his new crusade to protect New Hampshire’s no-sales-tax status by pushing back against a recent Supreme Court ruling allowing other states to collect internet sales taxes.

With the state’s legislative session over, Sununu is now moving into campaign mode. On Saturday he marched in a parade marking Laconia’s 125th anniversary as a New Hampshire city.

“This is the Democrats’ worst fear. I’m one of the most popular governors in the country and I haven’t even started campaigning on all the success we’ve had yet,” Sununu said in his Monitor interview.

He’s not concerned about any blue waves, either.

“If there’s a blue wave in the country, I suppose that’s possible. New Hampshire always bucks that trend. We have voted against what happens nationally because, again, we have a very smart electorate,” he said.

Scala said that it would have to be a very big Democratic wave to topple Sununu.

“Right now, the challenge for the eventual Democratic nominee will be giving the outside groups a reason to believe and invest in an uphill battle,” Scala said. “For all the unrest surrounding the president, it would take a Trump tsunami to topple Sununu.”

One more thing: Sununu has history on his side as he runs for re-election.

Only one Granite State governor in the past 90 years has lost re-election to a second two-year term. That dubious honor goes to Republican Gov. Craig Benson, who was defeated by Democratic challenger John Lynch in 2004.

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