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Analysis

N.H.’s Sununu, the GOP’s top Senate recruit for 2022, may have just created a big political problem over abortion

New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.
New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu.Elise Amendola/Associated Press

In a little-noticed move last week, the Republican Party’s top recruit to run for the US Senate next year— and possibly flip the balance of power in the chamber ― may have committed a mistake that will likely dominate next year’s election, should he end up running.

Had New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, a Republican, simply passed into law what was considered to be the most conservative state budget in years without one controversial provision, it wouldn’t likely stir up any long-term impact.

He is, after all, one of the most popular governors in the country, with approval ratings consistently in the high 60 percent range, just a tick or two below Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker.

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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has said publicly he has urged Sununu to run against incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan next year. The leader of the Senate Republican campaign efforts, Senator Rick Scott of Florida, just announced on Monday he will visit the Granite State in August for a local Republican fund-raiser where he is expected to step up the effort to recruit Sununu big time. So far, Sununu hasn’t ruled out a run but said he wanted to get the budget completed first and “enjoy the summer.”

Polls suggest he would beat Hassan, something that cannot be said of any other Republican challenger to a Democratic Senate incumbent in the entire country.

What is so politically bad about the budget? While Democrats, who have zero power in Concord, will say it is many things including banning critical race theory from being taught in public schools, or an aggressive push for school vouchers, the real story is that it touched one place that no Republican should ever go in New Hampshire: abortion.

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Since New Hampshire became a nationally watched swing state, there have been two issues that have defined which way elections typically go. While, sure, the state is susceptible to the national political mood, the general rule is that if a Democrat comes out for increased taxes or if a Republican is actively trying to restrict abortion access, they are toast.

Tucked into the so-called trailer bill of the budget that Sununu signed late Friday afternoon was a measure that would ban all abortions after 24 weeks, potentially sending doctors who perform them to jail for seven years along with fines up to $100,000. There is an exception for medical emergencies, but none for victims of rape or incest. In addition to that, New Hampshire will now require all patients seeking an abortion to first undergo an ultrasound, joining 27 states which already do this.

Three pieces of context do matter here. First, before the budget was signed, New Hampshire was one of only seven states that didn’t have some type of late-term abortion ban. Second, while there is no specific data, abortions after 24 weeks are considered are extremely rare, according to providers. Third, the polling has been clear for a while: New Hampshire voters favor abortion rights.

The latest polling this spring from the University of New Hampshire found that at least 88 percent of residents say abortion should be legal in at least some circumstances. When asked specifically about the ban after 24 weeks, 43 percent of those who responded to a June poll said they liked the idea, while 46 percent said they opposed it. But these split feelings about the ban might be beside the point. Democrats and Planned Parenthood have already gone on the attack with web ads questioning Sununu’s claim he is a “prochoice governor.”

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In fact, Sununu has run as a Republican for abortion rights, something that differentiates him from his father, John H. Sununu, who was governor in the 1980s, and his brother, John E. Sununu, who served in the US House and Senate.

Yet Democrats are already signaling on social media that should Sununu run for Senate next year, they will make the argument that Sununu is, as they would put it, not really in favor of abortion rights. For what it’s worth, Sununu has repeatedly said the abortion language was not his idea, even though he signed it into law.

This is, after all, the Democratic playbook in New Hampshire. Senator Jeanne Shaheen, who is for abortion rights, got elected for governor the first time in the 1990s using social issues like abortion to her benefit against her Republican opponent, who wanted to make abortion illegal. As it happened, Hassan faced that same opponent in 2012 to win her seat for governor.

Abortion has been the talking point as Democrats rose to power in several election cycles.

Then again, we have also watched Democrats try to employ this tactic against Sununu before. The first time Sununu ran for governor, in 2016, Democrats pointed to a vote he cast as an executive councilor to not award a state health contract to Planned Parenthood. Later, in a subsequent vote, he voted for that same contract.

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The impact was muddled.

This might be what Sununu will do next. After signing this bill into law, Sununu might come back next year, as he is running for Senate, and propose dropping criminal penalties for abortion providers, adding rape and incest as exceptions to the ban, and dropping the ultrasound requirement. That way when Democratic ads correctly point out he signed those ideas into law, he can correctly counter that they are no longer law. (Granted doing so would mean he would have to convince Republicans in the legislature to go along with it and risk losing their own primaries.)

But the big picture takeaway is this: Sununu made himself more vulnerable to Democrats in quietly signing this bill. The fact that there was no budget signing ceremony is the biggest tell that he knew it also. He didn’t want to give Democrats an image for their ads next year.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell.