Chris Sununu’s mission:Use old-school politics against Trump

Chris Sununu can never figure out which brand his children want. So, he scans, mindlessly, up and down the aisle. Other shoppers usually recognize the amiable Republican politician, who has governed New Hampshire for more than six years and could launch a 2024 bid for president. Frequently, they stop to talk to him.

“People are like: ‘Oh, wait, he’s got a minute. He’s not making his choice,” Sununu says. “So, people will come up to me in the cereal aisle. That seems to be the thing.”

Sometimes, his constituents just want to say hello. Other times, they apologize for interrupting his personal time and ask him for help with a problem such as veterans benefits. When that happens, Sununu pulls out his cell phone, takes notes, and asks for the shopper’s contact information.

People come up that are frustrated because something isn’t working. But they’re always very respectful,” he says. “I don’t think they’re angry at me. I think they’re angry sometimes when the system isn’t working, and they have every right to be so, and that’s why I’m there.”

Sununu prides himself on his old-fashioned retail politics skills, which he is determined to prove can be a winning strategy for the modern-day GOP. He sees a viable pathway to his party’s presidential nomination that runs through voters’ living rooms if they like what they hear during Republican primary debates.

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu waits for the start of a meeting between U.S. President Joe Biden and governors visiting from states around the country in the East Room of the White House on February 10, 2023 in Washington, DC.

In an extensive interview with USA TODAY, in which he outlined a potential 2024 campaign, Sununu, 48, emphasized his accessibility and capacity to connect with a range of voters. Drawing on his background as a former CEO and current governor of the first-in-the-nation primary state, he presented himself as a conservative alternative to the race’s front-runners.

His campaign would be a long shot, if he jumps into the fray, given the hold that former President Donald Trump and his next closest rival, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, have on the Republican electorate. But Sununu is betting that his ‘regular guy’ approach can win out over celebrity star power and incessant media attention.

Sununu says he has until August to enter the race in order to participate in the first GOP primary debate. He said he expects the sparring match, which the national party has said will be held in Milwaukee, to take place toward the end of the month.

“I’d love to get on the debate stage with those guys,” he said. “That would be fun.”

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He’s likely to face stiff competition from a gaggle of other Republicans who governed their states and may compete for the White House. The group includes DeSantis, South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem, and former Vice President Mike Pence. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson and former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley have already announced their candidacies.

All of the candidates will be competing for support in a fixed universe of Republican voters – roughly half of whom say they are supporting Trump. Some in the party who want a different nominee worry the former president will prevail in a divided field.

“I don’t believe in getting on stage to blow people up,” Sununu said. “But if getting on the stage can help me direct the conversation back to those Republican fundamentals that we can all agree on, and I can get a lot of people excited, well, then there’s value in doing that.”

Sununu said his mission after the midterm elections were, initially, to help the GOP become more likable and develop a better message. Election losses in 2022 demonstrated a need for the party to field strong candidates who appeal to independents and younger voters, he said.

With other potential candidates who had been campaigning in early states for some time failing to take off, Sununu said, Republicans began indicating their openness to supporting his vision.

“It’s not a campaign that I’m worried about. There’s an opportunity to lead a movement here. The new Republican. The next generation of Republicans. Not just younger, by next generation, but in terms of approach, policy, sensibilities, fiscal discipline, limited government.”

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Old-fashioned politics, a modern-day GOP

Sununu’s push for the Republican Party to reengage in the type of retail politicking that wins candidates early contests in states such as Iowa and New Hampshire is not without merit, GOP strategists said.

Trump, in his first campaign, joined events such as the Iowa State Fair. He grabbed headlines during the visit for giving children free helicopter rides. After he won the White House, Trump leaned into monster-sized rallies and made fewer individual connections. That strategy is viewed among Republicans as a factor in Trump losing his 2020 reelection bid.

While he is still holding large rallies, Trump is also trying to build rapport directly with supporters in his current campaign. On a recent trip to Iowa, he visited a diner. At his rally, he took attendees’ questions from the stage.

“I think retail politics is still very important. It’s certainly more important to some candidates than others, as far as driving earned media. Obviously, Trump doesn’t need to do it to get media attention, but he’s actually a very skilled retail politician,” said Andy Surabian, a Republican strategist who advises former president Trump’s son Don Jr. “So I think it’s been shrewd of him to do more of these smaller-scale events instead of just the typical rallies.”

Former President Donald Trump speaks at the New Hampshire Republican State Committee's Annual Meeting on Jan. 28 in Salem, New Hampshire.

Trump and his supporters say, establishment Republicans, including Sununu, who are pushing the party to ignore cultural issues and focus on an economic message are stuck in the past, however.

Most voters are not looking for a GOP candidate who can be a steady hand and will compromise with Democrats to pass good legislation, anti-Trump Republican strategist Sarah Longwell concurred.  more news home

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