Confident and even brash, Chris Sununu is one of the most popular governors in America. In a year when many Republicans struggled, he was re-elected in New Hampshire by more than 15 percentage points. The way to win, he says, is not “ranting and raving” about cultural topics but the old-fashioned way: listening carefully to voters and talking about solutions to their most pressing problems.
Sununu thinks Republicans need to relearn the “basic tenets of politics.” He’s no fan of Donald Trump, and he thinks the former president will be eminently beatable in the Republican primary. He also says it’s “insulting” of Democrats to demand that New Hampshire give up its traditional place in the presidential calendar to suit the “personal whims” of President Biden, who he predicts will eventually be pushed aside by Democratic power brokers in Washington or bow out on his own.
The New Hampshire governor, who is often discussed as a possible presidential contender in 2024, had a lot to say over the course of a 40-minute interview. Here’s a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for length and clarity:
Let’s talk about what happened in the midterm elections. A lot of people are blaming Donald Trump for choosing candidates in primaries who struggled in November. Is it that simple?
No, no, no, no. Look, there’s a lot of different pieces here. It’s not just about former President Trump. It’s about the candidates themselves. They were bad candidates because they had a bad message, right? Often they made Trump a part of their message. And that just isn’t what voters wanted.
A lot of candidates forgot the most basic tenets of politics: I need more votes than the other side. And it isn’t just about catering to a base or firing up your base. You need to listen to independents. You need to listen to all of the voting constituencies to see what the issues are for voters.
There was also a little bit of manipulation of the primary process by Democrats. We saw it right here in New Hampshire with our U.S. Senate race. You effectively had the opposing party trying to pick your party’s candidate. Democrats were good at defining our candidates for us.
Some Republicans say that candidates were too focused on hot-button cultural topics like transgender athletes competing in women’s sports, or books in school libraries. Do you agree with that critique?
Yes. I agree that candidates focused on the wrong issues. I don’t mind addressing cultural issues; of course we need to. But it’s how you as a candidate stand up for it — not just ranting and raving, but hopefully inspiring folks to really believe in you as the person who can be a positive agent of change for those issues.
Democrats talk about how abortion was a really powerful issue for them. You supported a 24-week ban, right?
Yeah, I signed that. The Legislature put it in the budget. I’m pro-choice, but it’s a provision that I think most Americans would support. It’s very late — the third trimester.
Looking at the effect of abortion nationally, do you wish the Supreme Court had ruled another way?
I supported Roe v. Wade. I think there was precedent across the country for it. And I think it stood and worked. I do understand the idea of states’ rights; I’m always a big believer in that. But to throw 50-plus years of precedent out the window and shake things up — I think to a lot of voters it looked like a politically driven decision.
Too many people think that this is an issue to be won. It’s not. It’s an issue to be debated and discussed and to find a good policy on. But it isn’t some fight where one side is going to beat the other. That’s just not the way this is going to play out. Voters don’t see it as an all-or-nothing proposition one way or the other.
I’m sure it’s not news to you that people talk about you as a potential presidential candidate. And abortion seems like it would be a very tricky issue in a Republican primary.
No, no, I don’t think it is. I really don’t. There will be a few states that ban it altogether. And there will be a few states that go full abortion. As for the rest, we’re all going to be kind of thrown into this spectrum of where the ban should be. The dynamic has fundamentally changed.
Can anybody beat Trump in a Republican primary?
Oh, of course. I think it’s going to be a tossup for a lot of different candidates. And by the way, the primary is still well over a year away. The average Republican voter really hasn’t been given options yet. We don’t know who’s running and who’s not, what the choices really are. And so polls right now are effectively meaningless.
He’s not clearing the field. He’s not scaring anyone out of the race by any means. And there’s just a lot of politics to play between now and 2024. A lot of this is inside baseball right now. The average voter is making sure that they can put gas in their tank and figuring out what they’re going to do over the holiday week.
When President Biden was asked what he planned to change after the midterms, he said “nothing.” What’s your reaction to that?
Foolish. Irresponsible to say that — to try to pretend like he had some overwhelming victory in the ’22 elections, which he didn’t. I think America is just waiting for him to go away.
The idea that he’s going to run again, I think, is shocking to many people. I personally don’t think he is going to be running in the ’24 election because I don’t think the Democrat elite of Washington will let him run. They’re going to find a way to either drive him out, push him out or convince him not to. But there’s no way they’re just going to sit back and let Joe Biden dictate the future of the Democrat Party.
I want to ask you about the primary calendar. Democrats have asked you to endorse their proposed changes, which would move South Carolina ahead of New Hampshire. And you have pretty much shut the door on that. A lot of Democrats voted for you, though, and you represent the entire state as governor. Don’t they deserve a voice in their Democratic presidential primary process?
Of course. That’s why it should be first in the nation here in New Hampshire. My Democratic congressional delegation did a terrible job trying to make the argument. The fact that the Democrat National Party is going to dictate our law and our process to us — to hell with that. I mean, it’s ridiculous. And more importantly, the fact that they would just allow the process to go to South Carolina on the personal whims of Joe Biden? Where it’s basically run by party bosses with incredibly low voter turnout? It’s insulting.
We’re still going to be the first ones to vote. And I can promise you that.
If Biden doesn’t run, are Democrats going to stay away from New Hampshire?
They would stay away at their own peril. Why wouldn’t you come here? And by the way, even if Biden runs, of course, they’re going to still come here. You think no one’s going to challenge Joe Biden? You think Pete Buttigieg — who did very well in New Hampshire, who is dying to be president — is just going to sit there in Washington, D.C., knowing he could come, put his name on the ballot in New Hampshire, get all this free earned media, you know, maybe even run away with the race?
The rest of the Democrat Party across America really doesn’t want to see Biden be their nominee again. It’d be crazy to not take advantage of that opportunity.
Donald Trump won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 pretty convincingly. What do Republican candidates who want to win New Hampshire need to do in 2024?
Come early, come often and engage with the voter. Don’t worry about how much money you’re going to spend. Just talk to folks and be genuine. We smell a phony a mile away.
Someone that keeps coming up in a lot of conversations is Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida. Do you think he’d do well in New Hampshire?
I think a lot of candidates could, but it’s about how willing any candidate is to get on the ground, walk the streets, walk door to door. If you come in and just spend money on TV ads, it ain’t really going to work. Just be yourself. Be normal. And if you’re coming in with big-government answers and with a statement that says, ‘I’m not Joe Biden, I’m not the Democrats,’ that’s just not enough to get it done. You’ve got to be about something.
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Michael Shear and Peter Baker reconstruct the prisoner swap with Russia that freed Brittney Griner, the W.N.B.A. star.
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