Victim: Moderate Republican governors in Democratic-leaning states.
Time of death: 12:20 p.m. Wednesday, July 19, 2023.
Cause: Donald Trump.
This brand of moderate Republican governor has been edging ever-closer to extinction for some time. Larry Hogan was term-limited out in Maryland last year. Charlie Baker opted for a $3 million-per-year paycheck over a brutal primary against a Donald Trump-endorsed candidate in Massachusetts.
Now Chris Sununu is calling it quits in New Hampshire.
Fiscally conservative but more socially moderate Republican governors have long defied electoral odds in blue and purple states. That’s proved particularly true in the liberal bastion of New England, where three of the region’s six governors were Republicans and executives of Baker and Bill Weld’s ilk ran Massachusetts almost uninterrupted for 30 years.
Trump’s rise accelerated the Republican Party’s hard-right march, complicating the primary calculus for moderates. Democrats capitalized on both Baker and Hogan’s departures and on anger towards both Trump and the Supreme Court to win back corner offices in Massachusetts and Maryland last year. On Wednesday, race raters reacted to Sununu’s pending departure by shifting the New Hampshire governor’s contest to a toss-up. Democrats now see the state as their best chance for a gubernatorial flip in 2024.
And with Sununu exiting, the ranks of Republican governors of states where Democrats won in 2020 — the likes of Nevada Gov. Joe Lombardo and Vermont Gov. Phil Scott — keep dwindling.
“This is new territory for the Republican Party,” veteran New Hampshire-based Republican strategist Mike Dennehy said.
Moderate Republican governors long found success in blue states, particularly in the Northeast, by appealing across party lines and providing a check on Democratic-led legislatures. In recent years, they’ve consistently polled as some of the most popular state executives in the country. And they’ve won reelection in their states by wide margins.
But Trump made it uncool — and in some cases unelectable — to do the one thing Republican governors have to do in bluer states: work across the aisle.
He also splintered the GOP base in even the bluest of states, fueling a race to the right that paved a pathway for more extreme candidates to win primaries.
It got to the point in Massachusetts where Baker — the stratospherically popular two-term governor and vocal Trump critic — ran a real risk of losing last year’s GOP gubernatorial primary to a conservative former state representative backed by Trump. And that’s despite Republicans knowing Baker could have easily won a third term.
So rather than engaging in a potentially bruising primary, Baker and his lieutenant governor, Karyn Polito, stepped aside. Geoff Diehl won the Republican nomination over a more moderate political newcomer. And he promptly lost the general election to Democrat Maura Healey by nearly 30 points.
“If Republicans can find candidates in the model of Sununu and Baker and Scott, they can remain competitive,” Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who worked with Sununu’s father and brother when they held elective office, said. “But if they nominate people who formally served as Trump’s campaign co-chair in a state, they’re going to lose.”
Sununu faced both a different governing landscape in New Hampshire, where the two legislative chambers are almost evenly split between parties, and a different relationship with the GOP base. He called Trump “fucking crazy” at a glitzy Washington D.C. dinner last spring and still breezed through his gubernatorial primary that fall. He won reelection to a fourth two-year term in November by 15 points.
Yet Sununu opted out of running for a record fifth term on Wednesday, saying “public service is not a career” and that the time was right to step aside.
“Obviously I think I could get reelected,” Sununu said in an interview. “But it’s just good for the system to have turnover, to have fresh faces, to have new ideas come to the forefront.”
But Sununu’s exit threatens to grow the power vacuum that Baker and Hogan created in a region that was once a stronghold for both moderate Republicans and an increasingly bygone way of bipartisan politicking — particularly if Scott, the Vermont governor who won a fourth term last year by his largest margin yet, also passes on running for a fifth.
“I have Republicans in my Legislature. I’m not forced to do anything. I just know it’s good business to work across the aisle when I can, it’s just a good way to get stuff done,” Sununu said. “It’s too bad we don’t have more folks that kind of work [bipartisanly]. … It doesn’t mean other folks won’t in the future. But we were some pretty good examples of doing it.”
Democrats who have been unable to unseat Sununu are now relishing in the Republican’s decision to step aside. The left has longed for an open gubernatorial seat in New Hampshire and now sees the state as one of their best — if not the best — pickup opportunities in 2024.
But the primary between Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington and outgoing Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig is already dividing the Democratic establishment in New Hampshire.
And Republicans are hardly writing the state off. Former state Senate President Chuck Morse, who ran unsuccessfully for U.S. Senate last year, jumped into the governor’s race just minutes after Sununu said he was out. Former Sen. Kelly Ayotte teased “some big news in the coming days.” State Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is also eyeing the race.
Still, even with “several quite capable candidates,” former New Hampshire GOP Chair Fergus Cullen said he’s warning his fellow Republicans not to underestimate the other side — especially if Trump becomes the party’s presidential pick again.
“If Trump is the nominee and he loses New Hampshire by eight points again, it’s going to be hard for Republicans to retain control of the governor’s office,” Cullen said. “I had hoped Sununu would have just run to get us through the election.”