Ground Game

History shows how the Sununus earned their political dynasty

N.H. Governor Chris Sununu.

A lot has changed in New Hampshire over four decades. An iconic granite cliff, the Old Man of the Mountain, shattered to the ground; the state’s population ballooned; and there is no longer horse racing at Rockingham Park.

But at least one thing in New Hampshire has endured: the Sununu family’s role in politics.

Yes, in a year like 2016, when voters rejected the political dynasties of Clinton and Bush, New Hampshire put back in power one of the most successful names in state history by electing Chris Sununu as governor. But unlike the reserved Yankee reputation of many New England pols, the Sununu family brings a different brand to elected politics: combat.


“The Sununus are all very smart and very intense and love a fight,” said Republican consultant Ryan Williams, who has worked closely with two generations of Sununus over the last decade. Williams also worked for a primary rival to Chris Sununu last year.

Get This Week in Politics in your inbox:
A weekly recap of the top political stories from The Globe, sent right to your email.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Indeed, history shows how the Sununus earned their political dynasty: through conflict and being unafraid to lose.

The matriarch, Nancy Sununu, served as the New Hampshire Republican Party chairwoman during the contentious 1980 presidential primary. The father, John H. Sununu, ran unsuccessfully for major office several times before winning in 1982. He later served as the chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush.

One of his sons, John E. Sununu, was elected to the US House and later won a term in the US Senate. Another son, Chris, was formally sworn in as New Hampshire’s newest governor on Thursday — with his seven siblings looking on. Among them was Michael, a Newfields selectman, and James, a North Hampton School Board member.

Chris Sununu, so far, has shown signs that he may walk the same family line. After he won the election as governor, he nonetheless accused Democrats of voter fraud. (He did not return a request for comment on strategy for his new office.)


His father, John H. Sununu, won his first election as state representative in 1972. According to lawmakers at the time, he got up so often to propose motions in the chamber that leadership assigned him a middle seat. It was more challenging for Sununu to get to a microphone that way.

John H. Sununu ran for state Senate twice, in 1974 and 1976, and lost to the same person — badly — both times. He then ran for the Executive Council in 1978 and lost. Two years later, he ran for Senate and lost the Republican primary. In 1982, he won a nine-way Republican primary for governor by securing 32 percent of the vote and won the general election.

By the time 1987 came around, Vice President George H.W. Bush was preparing to run for president and was having a rough time of it. The Bushes were tight with the Sununus’ rival Republican family in the state, the Greggs. Hugh Gregg served a term as governor and, at the time, Judd Gregg was in Congress.

But Sununu was governor, and Bush came to see him in his State House office. Afterward Sununu — not the Greggs — took on the main role of the New Hampshire campaign, and Bush won. The elder Sununu, who is known for not suffering fools, would become recognized in Washington for his argumentative style. After his stint as chief of staff, John H. Sununu found a perfect home: cohost of the former CNN debate show “Crossfire.”

But soon enough, his son John E. Sununu was entering his own competitive Republican primary for the US House in 1996. He won, thanks in part to his name and his intense campaigning. Six years later, this Sununu son didn’t wait for an open shot to run for the US Senate. John E. Sununu, a sitting member of Congress, challenged sitting US Senator Bob Smith in a Republican primary. Sununu won.

Former governor John H. Sununu peered through the door of the office of his son, Governor Chris Sununu on Thursday.
Charles Krupa/Associated Press
Former governor John H. Sununu peered through the door of the office of his son, Governor Chris Sununu on Thursday.

There were hard feelings for a while between Smith and Sununu. The split divided the local Republican Party into two camps — a chasm that most local Republicans still attribute to Sununu.

“All of that is in the past now,” Smith said in an interview. Indeed Smith was formally invited to attend Chris Sununu’s inauguration ceremony this week.

“That was the first time a Sununu has invited me to anything in a long time, and it was appreciated, and I wish them well,” Smith continued. “The thing is that with the Sununus it doesn’t feel so much like a dynasty like the Kennedys or something because they go out and earn their victories. Nothing was handed to them, and I give them credit for that.”

But save for a stint where John H. Sununu served as the state Republican Party chairman six years ago, the Sununus have been out of major office for eight years. That changed when the youngest of the eight Sununu children, Chris, was sworn into office this week. At 42 years old, he is also the youngest governor in America.

As he began his inaugural address, he looked at the crowd and acknowledged the large Sununu contingent that included his parents, his siblings, and 16 members of the next generation of Sununus. The family received a standing ovation from the crowd.

In Chris Sununu’s address, he called for the two political parties to work together — but he also pushed for a controversial “right-to-work” law, school choice, and imposing a 90-day moratorium on any new regulations.

New England’s most combative political family is back.

James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell, or subscribe to his Ground Game newsletter on politics: www.bostonglobe.com/groundgame.