New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu remains a thorn in the former president’s side.

Hassan says Republican Trump can't touch the one

It’s been nearly three months since Corey Lewandowski, Donald Trump’s former campaign manager, called for Chris Sununu’s head, boasting he was trying to help find someone to primary New Hampshire’s three-term Republican governor.

He isn’t having much luck.

In state after state, Trump has turned the GOP primaries into a referendum on the party’s loyalty to him, endorsing primary challengers against incumbents who refuse to bend the knee, and driving dissenters into early retirement.

But Sununu, who mocked Trump and referred to him as “fucking crazy” at the roast-style Gridiron Club dinner this month, so far appears to be beyond Trump’s reach, a thorn in the former president’s side that he’s been unable to remove.

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“You can talk up a storm, and there certainly are people in New Hampshire who are frustrated with Chris Sununu,” said Mike Dennehy, a former executive director of the New Hampshire Republican Party and former Republican National committeeman from the state. “But the fact of the matter is the guy’s at about 60 percent approval, he’s one of the most popular governors in the country and people in New Hampshire do like him.”

Even for Trump, Dennehy said, getting rid of Sununu is “an almost impossible endeavor to fulfill.”

Hassan says Republican Trump can't touch the one
Hassan is preparing for a possible challenge from Chris Sununu, a popular GOP governor whom Washington Republicans are wooing both privately and publicly. | Scott Eisen/Getty Images

The latest Saint Anselm College poll put Sununu’s public approval rating at 62 percent, up 9 percentage points from January. He is widely expected to cruise to a fourth term in November.

One longtime GOP activist in New Hampshire described Lewandowski’s hunt for a primary challenger to Sununu as “a lot of thunder, no lightning.”

“He might convince some drunk to do it, but no, he isn’t going to get anybody serious to run against him,” the activist said. “If Trump came out and hand-picked a candidate and endorsed him, it wouldn’t amount to a hill of beans.”

Julian Acciard, a Marine Corps veteran and businessperson in New Hampshire, told POLITICO on Monday that he has spoken in recent weeks with Lewandowski and Fred Doucette, a New Hampshire state lawmaker who was a Trump campaign co-chair in the state. Acciard is switching from running for Congress to running for governor.

“It honestly started out as a joke,” Acciard said.

Over cigars with Doucette at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Orlando earlier this year, Acciard said, Doucette mentioned Trump was looking for someone to primary Sununu, to which Acciard said he responded, “If you can’t find anyone, I’ll drop out of my race and I’ll do it.”

Acciard said he later met with Lewandowski before a fundraiser for Geoff Diehl, a Trump-endorsed Republican running for governor of Massachusetts. Acciard said of Sununu, ‘He’s a decently nice guy. … But he is part of a family legacy up here that has frankly been played out.”

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Still, neither Acciard nor any other potential Sununu opponent are viewed by Republican strategists in New Hampshire as problematic for Sununu, the son of a former governor and brother of a former senator.

“I just don’t see there are any serious folks … willing to run what would be a fruitless effort” to unseat Sununu, said Dave Carney, a national Republican strategist based in New Hampshire.

Few Republicans in New Hampshire expect Sununu, who passed on a U.S. Senate run this year, to run for president in 2024.

Even if he carried New Hampshire, his victory would likely be discounted due to his home-state advantage. New Hampshire is a small state with a meager fundraising base, and Sununu’s Northeastern Republican credentials would likely not appeal to hard line MAGA voters in other primary states.

Hassan says Republican Trump can't touch the one
Former President Donald Trump exits the stage after speaking during a rally hosted by the former president at the Delaware County Fairgrounds on April 23, 2022 in Delaware, Ohio. | Drew Angerer/Getty Images

But if Trump does not run for president in 2024 — or if his popularity within the party fades by then — New Hampshire will be a critical testing ground, and potential competitors are already assessing Sununu’s potential pull. That’s because, following the Iowa caucuses, any candidate resting their candidacy on a more moderate, nonevangelical base of support — potential candidates such as former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie or Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan — will desperately need a strong showing in New Hampshire, where moderates traditionally go to win over a more socially moderate Republicans and independents.

“I’m just looking at the path forward,” said one adviser to Hogan. “Sununu causes chaos for a large part of the 2024 field if he runs.”

Even if Sununu doesn’t run, he will be a highly sought-after endorser in the state. For potential candidates, said Wayne MacDonald, a New Hampshire lawmaker and former state Republican Party chair, Sununu “will be, at that point, a fourth-term Republican governor. He has a great organization and a strong base of support, and that endorsement is going to be very important.”

Trump, perhaps, is the one exception to that rule. He easily won the New Hampshire primary in 2016 and again in 2020, and it’s unclear if any Republican — Sununu included — could defeat him there.

Lewandowski said at a Mar-a-Lago event earlier this month that if Sununu does run against Trump in 2024, “there is 0.000001 percent chance that Chris Sununu will be the Republican nominee for president of the United States.”

Lewandowski suggested there is still time for Trumpworld to jettison Sununu with the filing deadline not until June.

“I think Chris is very vulnerable in a Republican primary, so we’ll see if somebody runs against him,” he said.

Sununu has not been as critical of Trump as some Republicans, like Rep. Liz Cheney of Wyoming, Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse or Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Sununu supported Trump in 2020 and insists he is not “anti-Trump.

But Sununu has rejected Trump’s baseless claims that the 2020 election was rigged, calling him “misinformed.” In another break with Trump, the governor said people convicted of participating in the riot at the Capitol on Jan. 6 should not be pardoned, and he said he didn’t need Trump to campaign with him in New Hampshire.

Then came the Gridiron Club dinner in Washington, D.C., where Sununu later said he was simply telling “jokes.”

The needling of the former president — which is frowned on under the GOP’s current iteration — does not appear to have hurt Sununu. In the latest Saint Anselm College poll, Sununu ranks favorably among men, women and people of all age groups and education levels in New Hampshire. Despite his moderate profile, he is viewed favorably by 86 percent of Republicans, and more than 80 percent of people who describe themselves as “very conservative.”

“He’s navigated the Trump stuff, just objectively, politically really well,” said Fergus Cullen, a former New Hampshire Republican Party chair. “He knows when to hug him, and when to push him away.”

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