CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts—New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is not a natural fit for the Republican presidential nomination in 2024.
He has been outspoken about Jan. 6—how “domestic terrorists attacked our nation’s Capitol.” He supports people getting boosted for COVID-19. He thinks the 2020 election was fair and secure. He even calls himself “pro-choice,” though he also supports restrictions on late-term abortions.
But Sununu is starting to do the things presidential contenders typically do, like showing up at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics last week to tout his governing record—and give his take on a presidential field he may shortly join.
As former President Donald Trump and Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis gear up for a potential primary fight that would shove the GOP even further right, Sununu is trying to bushwhack a path further to the center.
Although he has not declared his plans, the 48-year-old governor has been hitting the road for the past two months in what has become an increasingly unsubtle pre-2024 roadshow. His set piece answers on a potential run are peppered with caveats such as, “Whether it’s me or someone else, I want the Republicans to win in ’24.”
Speaking before a crowd of about 50 Harvard students and faculty last Tuesday, Sununu presented his vision of the future of the GOP to a crowd ostensibly filled with aspiring staffers and future politicians who will help build it. But Sununu was also not-so-subtly pointing out the daylight between himself and his would-be rivals for the GOP nomination. He boasted, for instance, that he traveled to Cambridge without any frills or “massive entourages,” noted that he does not dictate education curriculums, and warned that some Republicans have strayed away from the party’s Federalist roots.
In an interview with The Daily Beast after his speech, Sununu insisted he wasn’t subtweeting any candidate, particularly DeSantis.
“That’s just how we do it in New Hampshire,” Sununu told The Daily Beast. “I honestly didn’t even think about DeSantis with those comments.”
While Sununu is openly weighing a presidential run, he continues to enjoy a popular base of support at home. In New Hampshire, governors are elected every two years, but there are no limits on how many terms they can serve; Sununu won his fourth term easily last November.
A longtime New Hampshire Republican operative told The Daily Beast one of the selling points for Sununu as a 2024 contender is that he could leverage his support in the critical early primary state to stop Trump. In 2016, Trump’s resounding win in the Granite State marked his ascent to the presidency.
A Democratic strategist, who requested anonymity to grant Sununu some praise, said his family’s brand remains the strongest in the state, alongside that of Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH), a former governor and now three-term senator.
“He comes across as a very likable guy and knows how to work the media,” the Granite State Democrat said. “Between his dad and his brother and Chris Sununu being the more recent one to run for office, name ID goes a long way in politics. It really does.”
Sununu’s dad—John H. Sununu, a former New Hampshire governor himself, and a White House chief of staff to George H.W. Bush—continues to be a political power player, both inside New Hampshire and nationally. And his brother, former Sen. John Sununu Jr. (R-NH), also still holds ties to a party establishment with increasingly less sway.
The clear question that would define a Sununu presidential run is how much appetite there is in today’s GOP for a moderate scion of establishment royalty. But another question is how the governor’s pragmatic, down-to-earth brand would translate from a small state to the national stage.
For instance, on immigration reform—perhaps the most intractable issue in Washington—Sununu claimed that arriving at a bipartisan solution is “actually not that hard.” He held up immigration as the big example” to illustrate why “the New Hampshire model”—one of the oddest tax systems in the country—is so effective.
Sununu argued there are “10 Democrat and 10 Republican senators that really agree on a lot of immigration reform,” and if Washington were just to apply one of his core leadership tenets, it would finally get done after a nearly 40-year impasse.
“It's OK to give the other side a win," the governor said, describing his central negotiating tactic as something, apparently, “nobody seems willing to do now.”
“It's all about putting my stake in the ground, all or nothing, 100 percent or nothing,” Sununu continued. “That's never gonna get anything done.”
Chris Moyer, a Democratic communications strategist who went toe-to-toe with Sununu’s 2018 gubernatorial campaign as the communications director for Democratic nominee Molly Kelly, told The Daily Beast that Sununu has “a tendency of portraying getting things done in D.C. as far easier than it actually is.”
“It’s harder than he thinks,” Moyer continued. “He’s saying these things are so easy, but he doesn’t actually get in the arena, he sits on the sidelines.”
Sununu has flirted with the Washington arena before. Heading into a 2022 midterm cycle where Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) appeared to be one of the most vulnerable Democrats up for re-election, he considered a run and was heavily courted by party brass. He ultimately decided against it without giving so much as a heads-up to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY)—and added insult to injury by saying he had no interest in being “a roadblock for two years” in a splashy January 2022 Washington Examiner interview.
Months earlier, in July 2021, the self-described pro-choice Republican governor signed a state budget that included an unpopular abortion ban at 24 weeks, with exceptions only for the life or health of the mother.
In his interview with The Daily Beast, Sununu dismissed the idea that signing that bill and his subsequent decline in his approval ratings was a factor in his decision not to challenge Hassan. Instead, he specifically cited the lack of COVID briefings—and the subsequent lowering of his public profile as an executive managing a crisis—as a bigger contributor to the approval rating slump.
“That was because we weren’t in a pandemic anymore,” Sununu laughed as his father looked on from an armchair to his left. “I wasn’t on TV every day!”
When it comes to other big-name Republicans mulling presidential bids, Sununu is more than happy to fire off his takes—even unsolicited—on their chances.
Is Sen. Tim Scott (R-SC) running for president?
“I think he’s gonna get into the race,” Sununu said, adding that Scott was “having some trouble” entering the field before cutting himself off.
Former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo?
“Pompeo? I think he’s gonna get in the race, 50-50 on that one,” Sununu said, before adding a quick dig at the stodgy ex-Trump lieutenant. “Doesn’t have the political chops, 100 percent, but you know, really smart guy.”
How about Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin, another much discussed yet questionably in-demand Republican?
“Great guy, smart guy,” Sununu said. “Glenn’s 50-50 because he’s gotta get stuff done in Virginia.”
Ask Sununu to specify his own plans for a presidential run, however, and the free-flowing commentary dries up faster than the governor can run to his next interview.
“I’ll be the first to let you know,” he said.