By giving up on running for the Senate, Sununu is making a contrarian gamble on US politics – and leaving Republicans in a bind


He said he had national ambitions. When the Globe asked Sununu, a popular three-term Republican governor from a swing state, if he had ruled out running for president, he said no.

“I’m not ruling out going to DC, I’m just saying the Senate or Congress — probably not,” Sununu said. “I’m an engineer, I keep all my options on the table. You never know what tomorrow will bring.

In other words, Sununu has been making a strategic bet that has transcended conventional political thinking for at least the past decade.

Being governor or vice president was once a launching pad for the presidency. There were structural reasons why Barack Obama in 2008 was the first president to be elevated from the Senate since John F. Kennedy in 1960.

Governors had their own power base and their own donors in their home states. They could credibly highlight their state’s successes and claim them as their own. And, perhaps more importantly, voters could see these governors or vice presidents actually being president because they were in an executive role in a state house or the White House.

But then the internet, the news environment and, more importantly, the campaign finance system fundamentally changed who could succeed in a presidential race.

The game was no longer just about who had access to wealthy people who could raise tens of thousands of dollars at a single event, but which politicians could build a national brand, build an email list, and be virtually guaranteed to raise a certain amount of money each month through recurring donations of small dollars.

That’s why Senators Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Ted Cruz and even Rep. Michele Bachmann had a much better chance of being their party’s nominee than Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Ohio Gov. John Kasich or former Texas Governor Rick Perry.

Being an ideological arsonist in the Senate allows this politician to be on cable TV more to debate the national issues of the day. This, in turn, creates more name recognition, which in turn encourages cable viewers to give this senator $5 a month, which, in turn, allows their political team to buy more lists of email to solicit donations.

Remember, the biggest political assets in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary weren’t titles or political accomplishments, it was Barack Obama’s mailing list and, better yet, the man’s mailing list Tom Steyer’s most important business case in Democratic politics, grown as he spent hundreds of millions of dollars to build it through his Trump impeachment efforts. Ultimately, Steyer used the list to run for president himself, while spending more of his personal fortune.

And that’s why Steyer has been in the presidential race much longer than the governors who ran, like Bullock, Washington’s Jay Inslee and former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper. Indeed, perhaps because they finally recognized that being governor is a trap in American politics these days, Bullock and Hickenlooper ran for the US Senate after their presidential elections.

Which brings us back to Sununu. He makes the opposite bet on the future.

Sununu says the way an ambitious Republican navigates this moment of deep partisan division and a party entirely defined around Donald Trump is to be in the game as governor and stay out of the muck of a toxic Senate which doesn’t do much anyway.

Sununu said he may have enjoyed the Senate election campaign, which would have been among those that were followed nationwide. What concerned him, he said, was what would happen if he actually won. He would serve in a Senate full of political theater: where Rand Paul takes on Dr. Anthony Fauci and Josh Hawley uses his august platform to talk about the loss of masculinity in boys; or buccaneers are used for fundraising; and the Republican caucus is about to get a whole lot more Trump-y, with the latest generation of candidates from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Arizona, North Carolina and Alabama embracing its style. Sununu could basically say to national voters: See you on the other side of whatever is happening in the Senate right now.

Sununu spoke to senators about what work was like in 2021 and it did not sit well with him. He said “waiting and having meetings” in a place where “success was often if nothing happened” was not his cup of tea. In fairness, that appears to be what he was telling senators privately, as Florida Sen. Rick Scott, who led Republican recruiting efforts, had told reporters in recent months.

Ultimately, Sununu used the much-publicized courtship process as a game to raise his national profile among Republicans and donors without any of the downsides of running for the Senate.

In doing so, however, he really set back his party, which was fully on a Sununu Senate race.

Now Republicans don’t have a plan B to take on Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan, especially since former US senator Kelly Ayotte and former Massachusetts senator Scott Brown, who lives in New Hampshire, have refused. nomination. More than 48 hours after Sununu announced he would not run for the Senate, the New Hampshire Republican Party has yet to issue a statement — and no obvious person has emerged as the consensus candidate.

James Pindell can be contacted at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.


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