If recent polling is to be believed, the 2022 midterm elections could be among the best ever for Republicans. So while it is unusual these days for Republicans to do exceedingly well in deeply Democratic New England, if there was ever a time for an ambitious Republican to give it a shot, it would be now.
Yet in less than a month’s time, three of the most popular Republicans in New England have bypassed major election contests.
First, it was New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu, who turned down a chance to run for the US Senate. He was followed by Vermont Governor Phil Scott, who didn’t even entertain calls to get into his state’s newly open Senate race after the retirement of Senator Pat Leahy. And last week, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker decided he would back out of a major race himself by not seeking reelection to a third term.
While each has their own particular considerations, there are three similar themes in their decisions to pass on a more daunting contest during a likely Republican wave year.
1. They didn’t want it
Let’s not overlook the most obvious reason here. All three basically offered some version of the same points: They didn’t see themselves going through an intense campaign next year, or they didn’t actually want to do the job if they got elected, particularly in the Senate.
In the case of Baker, a campaign would have probably meant criticism coming from both the right and the left that could cause a hit to his sky-high approval rating. And there is the fact that his third term in office would possibly still be consumed by day-to-day COVID matters that would bring more protesters outside of his house.
During his press conference in early November, Sununu was clear that the more he investigated the role of Senator in 2021, the more he didn’t want the job. Scott was less chatty about his decision to forgo a run, but his lifestyle and job in Washington would clearly be a lot different from that of Vermont.
2. They are strangers in a strange land
All three men are unique in American politics. They are Republican governors of states that have voted for the Democratic presidential nominee in the last five presidential elections. In fact, this trio and Maine Senator Susan Collins are the only Republicans holding major office in the six-state region. Democrats hold the other three governor roles, 11 US Senate positions, and all 21 US House seats.
They are also very much not in the mold of Donald Trump. Each has openly criticized Trump ― though to varying degrees. Baker and Scott did not vote for Trump. Sununu has taken a more balanced approach and has appeared with Trump in public and avoided his ire.
But even if Sununu and Scott did win, say, a US Senate seat, they would have been in a political pickle. They would never be as conservative as needed to advance into leadership in this current Republican caucus. Indeed, they would be more likely to lose re-election.
3. The role of their own ambition
Each of the three has different ambitions, but their long-term goals were obviously a factor in the decision to not seek the more intense election next year.
The ambition question for politicians is not unlike the calculus for anyone else considering a new job. They have to ask themselves: Where is this all eventually going?
Baker says he doesn’t want to run for president. Even if he did there is no reason to think that running for reelection at this point would help him to that. Indeed, Mitt Romney didn’t even seek a second term in order to run for president himself. If Baker just wanted to go down as a well-liked governor, without any national ambitions, quitting now likely locks in his high approval rating.
Scott, a millionaire and former race car driver, has never said he wanted to serve in Washington. It is also very unclear if Vermonters could ever vote for him knowing that it might help Republicans win the Senate majority.
For Sununu, it was a different calculation. He said he isn’t opposed to serving in the Cabinet or maybe even running for president himself. He just didn’t see running for the Senate as a way to help him get to those roles.