CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu said Tuesday that he would seek a fourth term instead of running for Senate, dealing a major blow to Republicans who had hoped he could defeat Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan and help them retake the chamber in next year’s midterm elections.
Sununu, who won reelection last year by more than 30 percentage points, said he could have a bigger and more direct impact as governor than as a senator. In a nod to the slow speed of politics in Washington, he said he didn't want to spend the next six years “sitting around having meeting after meeting, waiting for votes to maybe happen.”
“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington — it’s to the citizens of New Hampshire. And I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results,” he said at a news conference in Concord.
“I like moving. I like getting stuff done. I don’t know if they could handle me down there,” he said. “I think I’d be like a lion in a cage, waiting to get something done and effect real change.”
Democrats now hold a narrow majority in the 50-50 U.S. Senate by virtue of Vice President Kamala Harris’ role as a tiebreaking vote. Sununu’s decision to seek a fourth two-year term in New Hampshire has a ripple effect on the larger national Senate landscape, which has begun to settle a year before Election Day 2022. The current map offers only a handful of legitimate pickup opportunities for the GOP – and more states where Democrats will likely be on offense.
Sununu had faced intense pressure to run for Senate. At a gathering of top Republicans last weekend in Las Vegas, he was repeatedly urged to run by some of his party’s most influential leaders.
“Every person here needs to come up to Chris and say, ‘Governor is great, but you need to run for Senate.’ Because this man could singlehandedly retire Chuck Schumer as majority leader in the Senate,” Texas Sen. Ted Cruz told the audience at the Republican Jewish Coalition’s annual leadership meeting.
Without Sununu, Republicans' best opportunities may lie in Georgia and Arizona, where first-term Democratic senators are facing their first reelection tests in states that President Joe Biden only narrowly won last year. But Republican retirements in Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Missouri will give Democrats a chance to flip those states blue.
Although Democrats hold all four of New Hampshire's congressional seats, Republicans control the state Legislature, and Hassan’s 2016 win was a narrow one. She defeated Republican incumbent Kelly Ayotte by a razor-thin 1,000 votes in a state where Democrat Hillary Clinton eked out a win over Republican Donald Trump. Sununu, a reluctant supporter of Trump’s in 2016, backed the president’s reelection bid in 2020, even calling himself a “Trump guy through and through.” But Biden comfortably won New Hampshire last year by more than 7 percentage points.
Ayotte, who had privately expressed interest in running for governor if Sununu didn't seek reelection, offered no signs in a statement Tuesday that she planned to run again for Senate.
“Governor Sununu has done a tremendous job in office and I am so thankful he will continue his service to our state and continue to fight for all Granite Staters," Ayotte said. "As for Joe and I, we will continue to focus on our family, professional careers, and electing Republicans here at home.”
At least two other Republicans have already entered the race to challenge Hassan: retired Army Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, who unsuccessfully sought the nomination to challenge New Hampshire's other U.S. senator, Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, in 2020, and Tejasinha Sivalingam, who ran unsuccessfully for a seat in the state Legislature in 2018.
“Maggie Hassan is the least popular and most vulnerable incumbent in the U.S. Senate, and for good reason,” said Chris Hartline of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, which is dedicated to electing Republicans to the Senate. “We have lots of great candidates in New Hampshire and we look forward to one of them beating Hassan next November.”
Hassan’s campaign manager Aaron Jacobs said the senator is prepared for any challenge that lies ahead.
“We know that no matter who emerges as the Republican nominee this is going to be a hard-fought race,” he said. “The Senator has shown that she can work across the aisle to get results for Granite Staters — and that is why she has a record of winning tough races.”
Hassan, who served two terms as governor and three terms in the state Senate, is the second woman in U.S. history to serve as both governor and senator. Shaheen, who defeated Sununu’s brother, John E. Sununu, in 2008 in a Senate race, was the first.
Sununu, whose father was governor from 1983 to 1989 and later served as White House chief of staff under President George H.W. Bush, was the youngest top executive in the country when he took office in 2017 at age 42. Now 47, he has faced criticism from Democrats for signing a state budget that included a ban on late-term abortions and from fellow Republicans for COVID-19 restrictions imposed during the pandemic. While he has been a strong promoter of the COVID-19 vaccines, he also has pushed back against the Biden administration's vaccination mandates for businesses.
Sununu said he wants to continue focusing on the pandemic as well as building on work to remake the state's mental health system. He said that the Senate might have been an “interesting adventure" but that he's at peace with his decision.
“When you look at what their job is and what a governor’s job is ... and the opportunity I get to create here for our citizens, it’s not even close," he said.
Associated Press writers Jill Colvin and Steve Peoples in New York contributed to this report.
Holly Ramer, The Associated Press