As national Republican leadership geared up for what appeared to be a favorable environment in the midterms, New Hampshire was an obvious target.
Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-NH) is a first-term incumbent who squeaked by former Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) by just over 1,000 votes in 2016. And Republicans had an obvious challenger to back: the uber-popular New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R).
But that changed quickly. Sununu rejected overtures from the likes of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) and Republican Senatorial Campaign Committee chair Rick Scott (R-FL).
“I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down, end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results,” Sununu said.
Ayotte, who barely lost to Hassan, said no thanks too.
Republicans were aghast, particularly peeved that Sununu dragged out the decision for so long, leaving less runway for an unknown candidate to ramp up a campaign and whip up some statewide name recognition.
“It is a winnable seat for the Republicans,” Neil Levesque, executive director at the New Hampshire Institute of Politics at Saint Anselm College, told TPM. “But like most of the problems nationwide for the Republican party, it’s candidate recruitment.”
The race still looks feasible for Republicans: both Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia and the Cook Political Report rank it only “leans Democratic.” But more than four months after Sununu’s decision, there’s no obvious candidate for the frontrunner slot.
“Sununu could have beaten Hassan in 2022,” Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, told TPM. “He’s popular, she’s meh, and the GOP will have a big year in 2022, better than 2014 (when Kelly Ayotte won), maybe as good as 2010 — but it would have been a hard-fought race. But without Sununu, there is no well-known, proven Republican running.”
The seeming leading remaining contenders include Gen. Don Bolduc — a Michael Flynn ally who lost the GOP primary to challenge Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) in 2020 and has since raised eyebrows with comments about Sununu being a “Chinese communist sympathizer” — and state Senate President Chuck Morse (R), who McConnell has named as a potentially good candidate, though he’s still fairly low-profile. Kevin Smith, formerly Londonderry town manager, is also in the mix and thought to have potential when he gets airtime.
Neither Morse nor Bolduc poll particularly well against Hassan, who has maintained leads in both matchups.
“Chuck Morse is a long-time state senator, but few people in New Hampshire can name their own state senator, let alone one from outside their district,” Smith said, adding that Morse may ultimately have mainstream GOP appeal thanks to his traditional conservative bona fides and lack of Trumpian fervor.
Hassan also possesses the financial edge, with $7,615,778 cash on hand as of the end of March, according to FEC filings. Morse has $671,885, Smith has $312,487 and Bolduc has $82,225.
“Sununu was the person that a lot of Washington Republicans had put their chips on,” Levesque said. “With him taking a pass and Senator Ayotte taking a pass, you’re definitely getting down into candidates that don’t have name recognition that they need unless they have some financial ability to get that name ID out there.”
The newly bleak situation for national Republicans is evident in financial decisions they’ve made since Sununu bowed out.
A PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) just doled out a cool $141 million among the most vulnerable seats for Republicans to defend, and their biggest attack opportunities. That ad buy is aimed at protecting Republican or open seats in North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Alaska, and attacking incumbent Democrats in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada.
New Hampshire, notably, did not make the cut.
The PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), also spending heavily, did not put New Hampshire on the list either.
“The key question is, could a B-level candidate defeat Senator Hassan given how difficult the overall environment is for President Biden and the Democrats?” Dante Scala, associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire, told TPM. “There’s a case to be made that maybe it doesn’t take a sitting governor to defeat Senator Hassan — maybe it takes somebody who just passes the plausibility test with people who say ‘I’m done with Hassan, I’m done with the Democrats, it’s time for change and this person seems good enough.’”
There’s still time for the field to change for Republicans, thanks to the state’s late deadlines. Candidates have until June to file, and the primary isn’t until September.
“There is a lot of time for one of the Republicans to define themselves,” Smith said.
Bruce Fenton, a CEO who has significant bitcoin wealth, entered the race at the end of March. He’s basing his platform, in part, on his opposition to lockdowns and vaccine mandates.
“The first step is securing the primary,” Scala said. “Then they’ll emerge in September as the candidate and maybe make the case then. McConnell and other Republicans may be willing to turn around and say ‘hey let’s get after this.’”
But candidates widely unknown in the state often need to err on the side of more time to get their message out to voters, especially against an incumbent.
That doesn’t leave a ton of leeway for Corey Lewandowski, a former Trump campaign manager, who said earlier this year that he was tasked by former President Donald Trump with recruiting top-tier candidates to run against both Hassan and Sununu.
He even hinted that he may be personally interested in challenging Sununu, a threat that seems dimmed with the primary just five months away. In the meantime, he’s been relegated to issuing hollow warnings, smarting after Sununu took Trump to task during a dinner event in D.C.
“If Chris had any guts, he would have run for U.S. Senate, and instead took the easy way out,” Lewandowski said. “And if the right Republican were to run against him, I’d be willing to bet Donald Trump would endorse Sununu’s opponent.”