WASHINGTON — New Hampshire Democrats believe they’ve found an albatross to hang on the popular Republican governor who is seen as likely to run for U.S. Senate in their state.
His name is Mitch McConnell.
For months, Democrats in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state have unfurled a concerted effort to link GOP Gov. Chris Sununu to McConnell in every way they can conjure.
There’s a website — MitchWantsSununu.com. There was a small digital advertising campaign earlier this summer, branding Sununu and McConnell as “two sides of the same coin.” There’s an open records request into exactly what Sununu was doing in McConnell’s home state of Kentucky in late August.
Sununu isn’t even a declared candidate yet.
Still, the political calculation is straightforward: The third-term governor is a real threat to flip the seat next year held by first-term Sen. Maggie Hassan, and Democrats see their best opportunity to weaken the would-be challenger as associating him with the Senate minority leader.
“There’s a real sense of revulsion with McConnell in New Hampshire,” said Ray Buckley, the longtime state Democratic Party chairman. “People just don’t like his style. His unfavorables are higher than any other public official that has ever been polled here in New Hampshire.”
The impetus for going all in on McConnell appears to stem from a February poll by the University of New Hampshire showing the Kentuckian’s favorability rating in the state at an embarrassing 4%, by far the worst finding of any person surveyed. His favorability among Republicans wasn’t much better, inching up to just 9%.
“That pretty much makes it an easy decision,” Buckley said.
McConnell and his allies have made no secret of their desire to snag Sununu as a recruit. Sununu confirmed in May he had spoken to McConnell about the seat. National Republican Senatorial Committee chair Rick Scott flew personally to meet with Sununu this spring.
And a top McConnell adviser, Josh Holmes, fawned over Sununu on his podcast, introducing the governor as having “more capability of changing this country and restoring conservative order basically than anybody else on the planet.”
“He’s untouchable in New Hampshire,” Holmes declared.
Kevin McLaughlin, a former NRSC executive director, echoed the sentiment lauding Sununu.
“If he gets in we will win New Hampshire, he’s that awesome,” McLaughlin said.
At this early vantage point, the polling explains their enthusiasm. The latest public read of the hypothetical matchup found Sununu leading Hassan by 8%. Private Republican surveys also track Sununu ahead.
And Sununu is just the type of Republican McConnell wants on the team. Unlike other candidates already running in Missouri and Ohio, Sununu is a trusted mainline GOPer who isn’t likely to betray McConnell or be a thorn in his side. Conservative, but no revolutionary, Sununu will color within the lines, avoiding inflammatory rhetoric that can easily become a caucuswide problem.
Most important to McConnell, Sununu is a proven winner, having earned his third term with a breezy 32-point victory last year.
But Sununu is in no rush to suit up for what would be a marquee battle that could flip control of the U.S. Senate. Having seen a popularity spike due to his pandemic response, Sununu is expected to bide his time, not settling on a final decision to run before later this fall or even early next year.
It’s the advantage of being a governor with a famous in-state family name and having the ability to easily garner press coverage and raise funds.
“If I start running for something — whether it’s governor or Senate — then you kind of become a candidate. And I just want to be a governor,” he told the “Ruthless” podcast, helmed by Holmes, last month.
Democrats know they can’t wait for the official gun to sound on the contest, so they’re attempting to preset McConnell as a centerpiece, a burden so sticky and cumbersome that Sununu will have to address it no matter when he makes his decision public. Republicans don’t think anyone other than rabid partisans will care who recruited Sununu into the race, dismissing their opponents’ efforts as a desperate distraction from Hassan’s Washington record.
But some are surprised Sununu isn’t doing more to find ample running room away from McConnell at the outset.
“By all accounts, McConnell is desperate for him, like really hungry. So Sununu has room to tell him. ‘Leave me alone, go away.’ I’m sure there are ways he could do it quietly. He would probably benefit doing it publicly. But instead of that, he flew to Kentucky,” said Harrell Kirstein, a Democratic operative who ran Sen. Jeanne Shaheen’s successful reelection campaign in 2020.
Sununu has claimed the Kentucky excursion was to study the commonwealth’s response to its COVID-19 surge.
“Like New Hampshire, Kentucky is a rural state with small cities,” Sununu said in a statement.
Democrats spotted the trip as another chance to drive their narrative.
“Did Chris Sununu or his chief of staff take additional meetings — including with members of Mitch McConnell’s staff or with political donors tied to McConnell or McConnell’s lieutenant Rick Scott?” a state party release read.
Sununu’s press office did not respond to several inquiries.
“Having never run a federal race before, he’s going to find that this game of footsie he’s playing with hyperpartisans is going to stick a little more than it has in the past,” predicted Kirstein.
If Democrats eventually start to see Sununu’s standing slip, they’re bound to chalk it up, at least in part, to the McConnell linkage. And that could provide a handy template for other races across the country in the fight over a 50-50 Senate.