The recent chain of events thought by the Beltway cognoscenti to spell doom and disaster for the Democratic Party was broken today when the prize Republican Senate prospect for the 2022 midterms said “no, thanks” to the offer of massive national-party financial support and celebrity. New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu shocked the GOP by announcing he would not, after all, challenge freshman Democratic senator Maggie Hassan and would instead run for a fourth two-year term as the Granite State’s chief executive.
Sununu’s statement of noncandidacy added insult to injury for Republicans who see reconquering the Senate in 2022 as a holy cause. “My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington; it is to the citizens of New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than just slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results.”
Gone unsaid is a fact little known to those who assume every governor wants a “promotion” to the Senate: Being governor is a hoot. You have an entire state government reporting to you; there is, in most states, some very nice public housing in the form of a fully staffed “governor’s mansion”; and you can make news whenever you want. In most respects, it’s a lot more attractive than being one of 100 senators struggling for attention and some sort of meaningful accomplishments while living in two places. Sununu likely knows a lot about the dubious pleasures of Washington, since his father was White House chief of staff under George H.W. Bush and his older brother was a one-term U.S. senator from 2003 to 2009.
Whatever its genesis, Sununu’s decision is a blow to Republicans who viewed Hassan as vulnerable and New Hampshire as the key to flipping the Senate. Sununu has led Hassan (his predecessor as governor) in every public poll taken this year. He won reelection to a third term in 2020 by nearly a two-to-one margin. There is no obvious star waiting in the wings to replace him in the Senate race. Former senator Kelly Ayotte (who lost her seat to Hassan in 2016) had been reportedly planning a gubernatorial bid assuming Sununu would run for the Senate. But now sources close to her say she won’t run for anything in 2022. There is already one announced Republican candidate, former general Don Bolduc, who has a notable fan in Donald J. Trump. Bolduc, who buys into the Big Lie, may be too Trumpy for New Hampshire, a state Joe Biden won by seven points last year (even as Sununu romped and Republicans won control of the state legislature).
The 2022 Senate landscape isn’t going to be easy for Republicans even if they flip control of the House (which is likely). Hassan aside, the only three vulnerable incumbent Democrats (Mark Kelly of Arizona, Raphael Warnock of Georgia, and Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada) are in states narrowly carried by Biden in 2020. In Arizona, the Republican primary to choose a challenger to Kelly could be a real clown show producing a weak nominee, and there are questions about Warnock’s Republican challenger, Herschel Walker, as well. Meanwhile, Democrats are favored to flip the Pennsylvania seat of retiring Republican senator Pat Toomey, and the GOP may struggle to hold seats in North Carolina and Wisconsin as well. Even Ohio could be problematic for Republicans given the wild, Trumpier-than-thou Senate primary there to choose a successor to the retiring Rob Portman.
Senate control could be critical to both parties, even if the current Democratic governing trifecta is taken off the table by House losses next year, since a Republican Senate could stonewall confirmation of most or all of Biden’s executive and judicial nominations. Senator Sununu was part of the formula for a Republican Senate, and Mitch McConnell and his moneyed allies will now have to figure out how best to redeploy the resources and hopes they wanted to invest in New Hampshire.