Why doesn't Chris Sununu want to be a senator?

Why doesn't Chris Sununu want to be a senator?
(AP Photo/Mary Schwalm)

A better question: Why would anyone, especially a Republican, want to be a senator at this particular moment in American history?

Ed already wrote this morning about Sununu’s shocking announcement that he won’t challenge Maggie Hassan for her Senate seat next year. All signs pointed to him getting in: He’s a popular governor, has sky-high name recognition thanks in part to his family, and would be running in a hugely favorable national environment for Republicans. He would have been a solid favorite in the race. And once he won, he would have become a national figure.

He didn’t want it. How come?

I think he told us half the truth in his remarks this morning when he implied that the Senate, well, sucks. It sucks less when you’re in the majority but not much less if the White House is controlled by the other party. “I’m not sure what the pitch would be,” said one Politico reporter about the GOP effort to recruit Sununu. “If you run and if we take back the majority we can hold up some of Biden’s nominees for two years?” Even if the GOP had total control of government, Congress is a miserable experience for would-be legislators who actually want to legislate. The leadership in both parties drafts the bills and sets the agenda; the rank-and-file in the caucus simply do what they’re told. “Given the Senate’s dysfunctional politics, who wouldn’t rather be a governor? Where you get to do your own thing, and not be Mitch McConnell’s sock puppet?” asked Charlie Sykes.

There are two reasons to run for Senate as a Republican in 2021: If you want to be on Fox News more often and/or if you want to run for president soon-ish and are eager to build a national profile. The reason Ted Cruz makes more news trolling Big Bird on Twitter than in the Senate nowadays is because there aren’t any meaningful legislative duties for him to carry out. He spends most of his time trying to position himself to win a Republican presidential primary once Trump finally retires. What else is he supposed to do to pass the hours?

Sununu isn’t ready to run for president yet, I guess. Or, more likely, he recognizes that a mild-mannered guy from New England isn’t going to knock off Ron DeSantis or some other populist in 2024 even if Trump doesn’t run. He has to play the long game and hope that the mood of the party evolves.

Which brings us to the other half of the probable truth about why he’s not running for Senate.

Sununu is friendly with Trump, enough so that Trump encouraged him to challenge Hassan for Senate this past summer. But Sununu has a problem: He’s not an election truther and may have plausibly feared that that fact would come to overshadow his Senate campaign, especially once Trump took notice of it. “I supported President Trump. He didn’t win. We’re moving on. There’ll be other new candidates that come forward,” he reportedly said back in April. When the town of Windham, New Hampshire, conducted a local audit of the election that was praised by Trump, Sununu replied, “A discrepancy of 300 votes out of over 800,000 cast does not constitute ‘massive election fraud.'” He spoke to the Republican Jewish Coalition this past weekend and reiterated that it’s time to move on:

He cited a conversation he said he had recently with a Trump supporter he tried to dissuade from focusing on last year: “Somebody asked me, ‘Well what about the election in 2020?’ I said, ‘Don’t worry about the election. That’s history, man.’”

He added, “If you are sitting here talking about 2020, or you are worried about who’s going to run in ’24, you are missing the boat.”

Chris Christie made the same point at the same event and was walloped by Trump in a statement last night. Sununu may have looked at that, foreseen that he’d be trapped on the campaign trail into taking a no-win position on election-rigging, and decided to pass on the Senate after all. Better to stick with the gubernatorial race and its focus on local issues, where his views of what happened in 2020 won’t matter nearly as much.

If you were a Republican running for federal office in a purple state, would you want to have to negotiate questions about insanity like this every day?

If I’m right about Sununu’s thinking then Trump’s obsession with his own defeat has helped cost his party its top Senate recruit for the 2022 cycle. With potentially disastrous results:

Even if Sununu had run and won, what would have been his reward? As a young Republican senator with national potential, he would have had to dance to Trump’s tune whenever called on to do so. It’s not a coincidence that none of the 19 Senate Republicans who voted for the infrastructure bill and have since been attacked repeatedly by Trump for it are seen as potential presidential hopefuls. Bad enough that the current dynamics of the Senate force the average member to do the bidding of leadership; in the Trump era, a Senate Republican who wants to run for president someday has to do Trump’s bidding too. Even when that might make him unpopular with the voters back home.

Forced to choose between holding a powerful job in his home state and going to Washington to tweet about Big Bird in hopes that it might make him president someday, Sununu evidently decided to play the long game. Run for governor again next year, win another two-year term easily, then reassess in 2024. Maybe he’ll run for another term then too and target Jeanne Shaheen’s Senate seat in 2026, when Trump’s influence on the party may be weaker than it is now. He’s 47 years old. He can take his time and wait for a more opportune moment to launch himself nationally.

Here’s Maggie Haberman on Trump’s private speech to the NRCC last night. Trump is already irritated and insecure about the fact that good candidates like Glenn Youngkin (and Sununu) can win big without closely aligning themselves with him.

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