MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Republicans would seem to have ideal conditions to reclaim Democrat Maggie Hassan’s Senate seat next fall: lagging approval ratings for President Biden, voters peeved over inflation, and an incumbent widely seen as vulnerable.
The only thing missing in a race that could tip the balance of power in the Senate their way? A top-notch Republican candidate.
Governor Chris Sununu, a rock star in the state’s GOP, shocked the political world in November when he rebuffed the entreaties from Washington Republicans to mount a Senate bid and decided to run for reelection instead. Nearly two months later, no new serious contender has joined the lackluster field in a now wide-open race for the Republican Senate nomination. Party insiders insist that will change in the coming weeks, although most of those cited as potential candidates have less name recognition and statewide campaign experience than those who have already passed.
“I wish it could have been Chris or Kelly,” sighed Earl Rinker, a Republican and former member of New Hampshire’s Executive Council, at a GOP Christmas party in mid-December, referring to Sununu and former senator Kelly Ayotte, who also has made clear that she is out. “What’s going to happen now, I don’t know.”
It all puts Republicans here in an odd position: They have what seems like an eminently winnable race, but the strongest candidates aren’t jumping in.
The dynamic is not unique to New Hampshire. At a time when so much of the GOP’s politics revolves around former president Donald Trump and his obsession with imagined fraud in the 2020 election, some traditionally electable candidates are passing on key 2022 Senate races nationwide, while those from the party’s Trump wing or with checkered pasts rise to the top in several states.
“It’s such an odd moment for the party,” said Liam Donovan, a Republican lobbyist who worked for the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We’re not quite post-Trump, we’re mid-Trump. I think until we can fully turn the page, there’s going to be a lot of people who keep their powder dry.”
Republicans are wrestling with what constitutes a top-notch recruit these days, and whether they even need them if the party rides a red wave in the mid-term elections.
The GOP base continues to hunger for candidates who embrace everything Trump: the election lies, conspiracy theories, and xenophobia that define his politics, as well as his personal example that a celebrity with no governing experience can blaze a path into political office. Around the country, potential candidates who don’t fit that bill but have demonstrated what used to be a top qualification — statewide appeal, particularly to independent voters — are so far passing on races for open seats or against vulnerable incumbents.
They include Governor Phil Scott of Vermont, a blue state where any Republican would be hard-pressed to win the race to succeed retiring Democrat Patrick Leahy, and Governor Doug Ducey of Arizona, who drew Trump’s ire for certifying the state’s 2020 election results and has been publicly warned by the former president against challenging first-term Democrat Mark Kelly.
That’s giving Democrats, who have been starved of good news, a glimmer of optimism about their chances of holding their narrow Senate majority after the 2022 midterms. And Republicans are recalling how weak candidates during the height of the Tea Party movement whiffed in key races in 2010 and 2012, leaving the party mired in minority status.
“Republicans run the risk of botching easy victories if they don’t recruit and nominate the best candidates, and I think at this point the jury’s still out on whether we have the best people running in key races,” said Ryan Williams, a Republican strategist who was a spokesman for the unsuccessful reelection campaign of former New Hampshire senator John E. Sununu.
Senate contests will be decided in 34 states this November, with 14 of those seats currently held by Democrats and 20 held by Republicans. Democrats do not have to defend any seats in states won by Trump in 2020. The Cook Political Report rates six contests a “toss-up.” Republicans need a net gain of only one seat to gain control of the Senate.
Some of the candidates the GOP has recruited for 2022 come with serious baggage. In Pennsylvania, Trump’s choice, Sean Parnell, a former Army Ranger, was accused by his estranged wife of spousal and child abuse. He has denied the charges but suspended his campaign. That’s created an opening that celebrity doctor Mehmet Oz is trying to seize by entering the race.
In Georgia, another Trump-endorsed Senate candidate, retired football star Herschel Walker, has also been accused of domestic violence. He has denied some of the allegations. In Missouri, a leading Republican candidate, Eric Greitens, is a former governor who resigned in 2018 after he was accused of blackmail and sexual misconduct.
Other Republican primaries have turned messy and divisive as the candidates try to out-Stop-the-Steal each other. In Ohio, a knock-down, drag-out fight has emerged among former state treasurer Josh Mandel, the writer JD Vance, and others over who can be the Trumpiest. In Arizona, the likes of Attorney General Mike Brnovich, investor Blake Masters, and businessman Jim Lamon are tangling and trailing Kelly in head-to-head polls.
While it is always possible their political fortunes could change, Republicans are well-positioned to re-take the House majority because of gerrymandering after the 2020 Census, and they are hoping the national environment will be so good for them that only a historically bad candidate — think Todd Akin, the Missouri Republican whose comments about “legitimate rape” sank his 2012 Senate bid — could lose.
“Just having a C-list recruit is not going to doom anybody,” Donovan said.
In all those races, there are few contenders emulating the Republicans’ most successful candidate of 2021, Virginia businessman Glenn Youngkin, who kept Trump at arm’s length in winning the governor’s race in a state Biden had won by 10 percentage points.
“People have just decided to look at the stunning victory of Glenn Youngkin and say, ‘Wow, look at that playbook, I’m going to ignore it,’” said Sarah Longwell, an anti-Trump Republican strategist who says there is little incentive for traditionally electable Republicans to run right now.
“This entire election, the Republican line is going to be about the election being stolen. That’s their turnout mechanism, that is how they’re messaging to voters,” Longwell said. “If you’re a responsible Republican, it doesn’t sound very fun to run in this climate.”
Other Republican senators who have cruised to victory on a more restrained political brand are heading for the exits, including Rob Portman of Ohio, Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania, and Roy Blunt of Missouri.
Sununu cast his decision not to run for the Senate as being more about the general lack of appeal to him of an institution best known these days for partisan gridlock. In short, he said, a chamber once considered the world’s greatest deliberative body holds little allure for him.
“I like moving. I like getting stuff done. I don’t know if I could handle being down there,” he said on Nov. 9, when he announced his decision. “I think I’d be a lion in a cage waiting to get something and effect real change.”
Ayotte, who lost a reelection bid to Hassan in 2016 by about 1,000 votes, has also said that she is not interested in running. She was recently elected chair of the board of directors at BAE Systems.
Hassan, a political moderate , is viewed as one of the most vulnerable Democratic incumbents. In a poll released Dec. 22 by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, 43 percent of respondents had a favorable opinion of her, while 40 percent had an unfavorable one. Ads about her — for and against — are already blanketing the airwaves.
To date, the officially declared Republican field in New Hampshire includes Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who announced his campaign in November 2020 but whose anemic fund-raising of $130,000 so far suggests he is not being taken seriously as a candidate. A second declared candidate has raised just $168.
“I do believe there is not a credible candidate in this race right now,” said Corky Messner, who was the GOP nominee in the 2020 Senate race but lost to Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen. He has not ruled out challenging Hassan and convened a meeting of potential candidates in early December, an event that quickly leaked to WMUR.
“My hope,” he said, “is that a credible candidate other than me emerges.”
New Hampshire Republicans insist it is early yet — the state’s primary, after all, is not until September — and are projecting confidence they will have a strong field by early 2022.
“The governor’s been very active in working to recruit a quality candidate,” said Dave Carney, a longtime GOP operative in New Hampshire. “This is a great opportunity.”
Others widely believed to be mulling a campaign include state Senate President Chuck Morse; former congressman Frank Guinta, who represented the state’s First Congressional District from 2011-2013 and again from 2015-17; businessman Bill Binnie; Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut; and Kevin Smith, the town manager of Londonderry, who political insiders in Washington and New Hampshire believe is most likely to throw his hat in the ring.
“We’ve got a lot of people that are interested in running,” said Florida Senator Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. “We’re going to have a great candidate come out of the primary, and we’ll win.”
For a town manager to be among the most buzzed about candidates is a particularly New Hampshire turn of events. And some Republicans admit that, in a state with hundreds of low-paid state lawmakers but only a handful of statewide elected positions, their bench is thin. No one on it has name recognition comparable to Sununu. Reached by phone, John E. Sununu, who is the governor’s brother, declined to comment on whether he is considering running.
Republicans are confident that whoever emerges will have plenty of time to meet voters in this small state, and will rake in cash from national donors.
“I’m not convinced,” said Jim Merrill, a New Hampshire-based consultant who worked for Mitt Romney’s presidential campaign and for Florida Senator Marco Rubio, that “you need a rock star to win this race in 2022.”