Is New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu running for president? He’ll figure that out “by the summer,” or maybe “going into the fall,” just like everybody else. What’s the hurry?
“What I’m looking to do is kind of redirect the conversation,” Sununu told Semafor on Saturday, during a break at the National Governors Association’s D.C. meeting. “Take it back to what we really are as conservatives, who we really are as Republicans. Sometimes we need a little reminding, right?”
Sununu, who won his fourth term in November, started saying “maybe” to the presidential question immediately afterwards. By Christmas, Friends of Chris Sununu had bought Facebook ads in South Carolina and Iowa. Last week, he launched a Live Free or Die Committee that can raise unlimited money and spend it on campaign-adjacent activities.
On Thursday, he’ll speak to a GOP club in Naples, where Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis won by a landslide, because they heard about what he’s doing in New Hampshire and how “it’s very different than what they do in Florida,” he said.
This has put Sununu in the mix as not just one of the few Republican governors who’ll criticize Trump on Sunday talk shows, but one who might run for president, with the rarely-winning argument that the GOP has moved too far to the right.
That also means criticizing DeSantis, the only potential 2024 nominee besides Trump who the governor’s currently criticizing. (Sununu says that former U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley, who announced her own campaign on Tuesday, “would make a great president.”) During his first term, Sununu signed legislation banning discrimination based on gender identity; last year, he killed a “parental bill of rights,” which would have required schools to tell parents if their children changed their gender identity while in class. Citing advice from his attorney general, Sununu threatened a veto and let the GOP-run house of representatives smother it.
“Too many states are passing bills that get destroyed in court, so what’s the point?” Sununu explained. “I’ll sign a good parental rights bill tomorrow, but I’m not going to sign something that we know is going to fail.”
In his talk with Semafor, and in an appearance on “Face the Nation,” Sununu declared himself opposed to “wokeness,” and opposed to the way DeSantis was fighting it. The Florida governor’s victory over Disney had thrilled conservatives — by revoking and reformulating the company’s special tax and legal status for Walt Disney World, DeSantis used government power to punish a company that opposed his parental rights legislation, known to critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill. Sununu wouldn’t have done it.
“What do I care?” Sununu said. “You don’t want to watch ‘Frozen’ for the hundredth time with your kids because you don’t like wokeism or Disney? Great! Don’t do it!”
Sununu does oppose “wokeness,” but doesn’t describe it as one of the country’s defining crises. What’s important to him now is getting to a balanced federal budget and reforming immigration so “the best and the brightest can keep coming to America.” It’s a pre-Trump agenda that he’d like to make into the post-Trump agenda — which, for now, means telling a lot of people he might run for president.
Sununu is nowhere in GOP primary polls, which tell us this is a race between Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, and half a dozen Republicans with single-digit support, including former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan, whose pitch and whose potential voters overlap with Sununu’s.
But Sununu’s still in office, with a libertarian-leaning GOP legislature, and happy to contrast his approach with what’s happening in Florida. That could offer a model for other Republicans who are more worried about electability after 2022, as well as a test of how deep their appeal runs with the national GOP electorate.
Trump and DeSantis want to use government power to reverse the left’s march through public and private institutions. Sununu is critical of that idea – shared every hour on conservative media – and available to say why every time a candidate/potential rival comes to his state.
He advocated vaccination against COVID-19, but favored a “third party, independent” group, with no politicians, doing an “after action report” — not the Fauci frog-march to jail favored by many Republicans. When I asked Sununu if he favored any federal limits on abortion, or even if he’d translate New Hampshire’s 24-week abortion ban into a federal standard, he said no.
“The court said the federal government should stay out of it, right?” said Sununu. “So the federal government should stay out of it. I think the federal government should stay out of most everything.”
Sununu was also advocating a more moderate approach on gender identity and transgender rights that’s a few steps back from the emerging GOP position. He didn’t reject the concept of gender identity separate from sex assigned at birth.
“If you want to use your pronouns, fine,” Sununu said. “I hate compelled speech. I don’t believe in that. You want to use certain pronouns in the Live Free or Die state? Maybe I agree with it, maybe I don’t. But that’s your path. It’s your journey, if it’s not getting in my way or hurting me or hurting your kids.”
“Moderate” is a relative term — Sununu said he favors stopping “surgeries” for minors and didn’t disagree with the overall push to inform parents if their children wanted to identify as a different gender in the classroom. While he didn’t get into specifics, governors and legislators in many red states are working to ban gender-affirming care for minors, which only rarely includes surgery, going against recommendations by the American Medical Association, American Psychological Association, and American Academy of Pediatrics. Advocates for transgender rights argue that many recent proposed bills targeting transgender youth are extreme.
And while Sununu was critical of DeSantis, for using government power to fight “wokeism” in the private sector, he agreed with other tactics. It was legitimate to enforce “free speech” at colleges that got taxpayer funds, and legitimate to battle “Environmental, social, and corporate governance” (ESG) investing by pulling state pensions out of companies that embraced it.
“That’s not just a cultural thing,” Sununu explained. “That’s bad investments that don’t get the return I need. That’s my employee’s pension benefits. Look, your job is to make as much money as possible. ESG does not do that. Get that out of there.”
The View From Democrats
Ray Buckley, who has chaired the New Hampshire Democratic Party during Sununu’s entire time in office, told Semafor that the governor didn’t have the drive it took to seriously compete for the presidency.
“Sununu likes being in the press, but no way will he do the hard work needed to raise $100 million,” Buckley said. “That is just not in his DNA.”