Endorsements may not move the needle with most voters, even when A-listers like Ted Cruz make them. When it comes to John H. Sununu, former governor of New Hampshire and one-time RNC chair, it would normally matter less, except for his ties to the Bush family, who haven’t exactly tripped over themselves to support Donald Trump. Like Cruz, Sununu didn’t hold back his criticism of the Republican nominee, at least until today. The morning after the debate, the Trump campaign released this statement from George H. W. Bush’s former chief of staff:
“Donald Trump is the only candidate in this race who can bring bold change to Washington D.C. I support the Trump-Pence ticket for their pro-growth agenda and commitment to protecting American interests. Republicans, Independents and smart Democrats need to come together to elect Donald Trump and Mike Pence.”
As an attempt to change the subject from last night’s debate, it certainly pings the radar, but perhaps not for the right reasons. Sununu has a reputation with conservative activists within the party as an establishmentarian. It was Sununu who pushed Bush to make the deal for a tax increase in 1990 and defy his “read my lips” pledge from two years earlier, a decision which still rankles purists. It also came up in the 2012 primary cycle, when Sununu endorsed Mitt Romney over Newt Gingrich, attacking the latter for “throwing [Paul] Ryan under the bus” on entitlement reform. Gingrich had a colorful response to Sununu at the time:
Gingrich recalled that he warned the Bush White House not to make the deal. “I kept telling them, this is a trap, you should not raise taxes,” Gingrich told me. “And they were clever.”
I said it seemed that Sununu is still mad at Gingrich. “Oh, I think he is,” Gingrich responded. “Because it all blew up. It turns out they shouldn’t have broken their word and raised taxes. I think if you’re the engineer of a policy that blows up, you have to blame somebody other than yourself.”
“I just think to pick a fight over tax increases and breaking your word and flip-flopping, and to have [Sununu] as a spokesman for that particular campaign is an unusual choice,” Gingrich said. “But it’s their choice.”
Let’s not forget that Gingrich has been on Team Trump since the primary votes began (at least), and Romney has actively spoken out against Trump. Given that history, trumpeting Sununu’s endorsement seems like an odd choice. However, Team Trump probably figures that it’s water under the bridge at this point, and they’re probably correct. Sununu’s status as an elder statesman, and his influence on New Hampshire voters, far outweighs the business-as-usual reputation that Sununu carries after that contretemps. Will his endorsement help in New Hampshire, where Trump trails Hillary by five points in the RCP average? It can’t hurt, certainly.
But there’s another aspect to this as well. The Bush family has made their distaste of Trump abundantly clear, and supposedly Sununu’s former boss told Kathleen Kennedy Townsend that he’s voting for Hillary. Getting Sununu on board shows that Team Trump cares about at least trying to bring in all wings of the GOP. Landing the Sununu endorsement after taking criticism from him might demonstrate some success along those lines, and could hint that the Bushes themselves (or perhaps at least their inner circle) have begun seeing the race in binary terms, as Cruz himself has repeatedly stressed for the past four days. If the Bushes begin signaling that the time for unity has arrived, that could help with some remaining holdouts — but it might take a better debate performance for them to actively light that signal. It seems difficult to believe that Sununu would wander this far off the Bush reservation on his own.