Sununu's smart departure
As a candidate, Sununu would have lost while making the New Hampshire primary irrelevant. As a non-candidate governor, he can be a kingmaker.
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu made it official today that he is not running for president. Although he really hasn’t been considered a committed candidate up until now and hasn’t had much of a showing in the polls, his formal withdrawal is more of a big deal than most.
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Sununu outlined the reasons for his withdrawal in a Washington Post piece today. He made it clear that both his candidacy and his withdrawal were about precisely one main issue: preventing Donald Trump from becoming the Republican nominee:
If he is the nominee, Republicans will lose again. Just as we did in 2018, 2020 and 2022. This is indisputable, and I am not willing to let it happen without a fight.
Unlike many other candidates, Sununu is taking the position that the non-Trump portion of the party (likely a majority, depending on how you measure things) needs to create a united front, coordinating behind a strong candidate who can defeat Trump in the primaries and caucuses and then defeat Biden in the general election. This is the right way to think about it! But there’s more:
By choosing not to seek the nomination, I can be more effective for the Republican Party in ways few other leaders can. The microphone afforded to the governor of New Hampshire plays a critical role in an early nominating state. I plan to endorse, campaign and support the candidate I believe has the best chance of winning in November 2024.
This is also a good take. Sununu likely has more power as a non-candidate than he does as a candidate. As a candidate, Sununu would likely have lost, but more importantly, he would have made the New Hampshire contest largely irrelevant. Few would have bothered to mount serious campaigns there knowing how popular he is among state Republicans.
But he has a louder voice as kingmaker. Presumably, he can give a non-Trump Republican candidate a significant boost going into the Granite State contest, helping that candidate with name recognition, funding, connections, and the possibility of a win, or at least a strong showing against the frontrunner.
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Sununu hasn’t said exactly what he’s looking for in a candidate. But the one issue he singles out in his op/ed is abortion:
Instead of pushing deeply unpopular and restrictive nationwide abortion bans, Republicans should recognize that every time they open their mouths to talk about banning abortion, an independent voter joins the Democrats.
This presumably precludes him from backing a candidate like Mike Pence, who favors a full nationwide abortion ban. Would it prevent him from endorsing Ron DeSantis, who recently signed a very restrictive six-week ban in Florida? What about Tim Scott, who is trying to be extremely vague about where he stands on abortion? All this is unclear.
Another thing unclear is what he’ll do if Trump, despite everything else, still becomes the nominee. He backed him in 2016, and he’s previously said, despite everything he finds odious about Trump, he’d probably still back him in a general election.
Now, one might still ask just why Sununu is dropping out now, in early June, two months before any debates start. He could hold on for a few months more and still be influential in New Hampshire.
It seems clear that he sees the writing on the wall. He hasn’t gotten the indications of support — endorsements, money, etc. — that one would need to mount a successful campaign, so he’s dropping out now rather than tarnish his reputation with failure.
To my mind, this shows that Sununu was winnowed out of the race. He wanted the nomination, but influential people in the party are either all in with Trump or are still looking for a champion, just not Sununu. That is, Sununu was competing; he lost.
But even if candidates don’t get to decide whether they win, they can decide how they lose. Sununu is dropping out in a way and a manner that still affords him some influence. And it’s likely more influence than he had as a candidate.