GILFORD, N.H. — Governor Chris Sununu of New Hampshire is confident that he is good at his job. He is confident his sunny, back-to-basics conservatism could boost his Republican Party after a string of losses. He is confident that it’s time for the GOP to cut a path away from former president Trump.
And, as he stood atop Gunstock Mountain on a crystal clear Tuesday in January, he seemed entirely confident that a political reporter who had been on skis just twice in the past 20 years — this reporter, to be precise — would be perfectly fine on the intermediate run below.
“This is literally the steepest part of the whole trail,” he said breezily, promising that the Gunsmoke trail ahead was slow, wide, and eminently doable. “Take your time.”
Sununu will need every ounce of his blithe self-assurance if he jumps into the 2024 presidential race — a possibility he has hinted at increasingly in recent months in a burst of publicity that has included cable news interviews, long print sit-downs, and this mountainside jaunt.
It is unclear whether his interest is in running for president or more in the attention that comes with possibly running. But after cruising to reelection in November as his party underwhelmed elsewhere, the irreverent Republican is delighted to tell anyone who will listen what the GOP can learn from his purple state success.
“Could I do the job? Well, of course,” he said, on a day when he glided easily down a mountain he helped to save from overzealous libertarians and offered abject warnings about his party’s recent struggles to win over independent voters.
“We need to stop worrying about just talking to our base and more about influencing the next generation of voters to be on our team,” Sununu said. “We can’t win unless we do that.”
At first glance, it is not obvious how influential Sununu can be. The son of former governor John H. Sununu and the younger brother of former senator John E. Sununu, he is a scion of the kind of political dynasty that Republicans have taken particular joy in dismantling in recent years. He has called himself pro-choice, unlike many in the GOP, and believes his party needs to temper the very pugilism and culture wars that have animated the careers of its brightest stars. He tries, he says, to be “normal.”
And yet, Sununu is one of the more popular governors in the country, having broken the hearts of the Washington Republicans who begged him to run for Senate, and he has a perch in an early primary state. In a crowded field of would-be candidates who want to be like Trump, but also fear angering him, Sununu called the former president “[expletive] crazy” last year and lived to tell the tale, leading Politico to call him “the one Republican Trump can’t touch.”
“He was not created by Trump, he’s not dependent on Trump, he doesn’t need Trump,” said New Hampshire GOP strategist Dave Carney.
Sununu, who believes his party hasn’t fundamentally changed much since his father rose toward the top of it in the late 1980s, is betting that Republicans might just be ready for “normal” again, and his efforts either as a candidate or an early primary state kingmaker will test that theory. But while moderation plays well at home, the broader Republican Party exists on different political terrain.
“If you call yourself pro-choice,” said one Republican strategist who asked for anonymity to speak freely, “you are not electable as a Republican.”
The governor is in no rush to announce his plans. Not deciding, in fact, seems quite fun, particularly when it comes with the chance to use a marathon interview with The Boston Globe to show off his state’s fine leisure activities.
“I like steep and fast, I’m not going to lie,” he said, about halfway down the run, impressed and possibly relieved that this reporter had managed to stay on her skis. “But I try to stay out of the bumps.”
Sununu has embraced two family businesses: Skiing and politics.
“We are very much a skiing family,” he said, clad in a Patagonia jacket, having loaded his skis and poles from his father’s charity ski races in the late 80′s into the back of a black state Chevy Tahoe that was trundling toward Lake Winnipesaukee and Gunstock Mountain. “My dad was the skiing governor and that kind of stuff.”
A detail-obsessed engineer who became the chief executive of the Waterville Valley Resort after his family led a group of investors to buy it, Sununu delights in the nuts and bolts. After peppering Gunstock’s general manager with questions about its ticketing system that morning, he rattled off the complexities of running a ski resort -- “The key with rental shops is speed, speed, speed” -- with the same eager granularity as he discussed his changes to the state’s systems for paid leave and mental health.
His choice of Gunstock seemed deliberate. Over the summer, after antigovernment political activists temporarily caused the mountain to shut down, Sununu personally intervened with a letter that urged voters to reject their extremism. In the fall, the rabble-rousers were swept out of office.
“They tend to scare politicians sometimes,” he said, referring to the group known as the Free Staters. “Not me, of course.”
Sununu has cut taxes, rejected gun restrictions, and signed a 24-week abortion ban that drew fierce protests from Democrats, but insists he does not support restrictions any earlier in a pregnancy. He has clashed with members of his party over parental rights, vaccine mandates, and his refusal to gerrymander the state’s two congressional districts. He believes the GOP would do well nationally to wrest itself away from its extremes and its echo chambers.
“DeSantis and, and Nikki Haley, and Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence, these are all very good friends of mine. I respect them all. But maybe with the exception of DeSantis, none of them are going anywhere. Because they keep talking to the same voters expecting some sort of different result,” he said. “They’re not going after the independent voter.”
As the lift pulled away from the ground, one detail was bothering Sununu: this reporter’s lack of ski goggles.
“You can take Brandon’s,” he said, referring to a 26-year-old staffer dutifully following him around the mountain. (Brandon did not have a pair, either.)
Sununu coasted down the icy path, a seemingly familiar routine for a governor who has made himself a peppy avatar for the state, once merrily starring in a tourism video in which he camped, hiked, skied, mountain-biked, and more all in one day. Life in the gridlocked Senate would be dull by contrast, although that did not stop him from teasing the possibility for months.
“I really thought I was going to do it,” he said, until some senators who were attempting to persuade him soured him on the idea. “They were the worst used car salesmen you can possibly imagine.”
Sununu endorsed Senate President Chuck Morse instead, and tried unsuccessfully to persuade Trump to do the same. But the far-right retired General Don Bolduc emerged victorious — only to lose to Senator Maggie Hassan by 9.2 points on the same night Sununu won by 15.5.
He joked his win was because he started blow-drying his hair. But Bolduc’s loss was part of a broader underperformance by his party that Sununu has been quick to diagnose.
“People wanted inflation solved, that’s still the top issue, but they didn’t buy that the more extreme Republicans were the ones to do the fixing, because they were focused more on social, cultural warrior issues,” he said.
He does not kick himself for not running.
“Nobody ever says,” he said, “I really regret not joining the circus.”
Sununu is disdainful of Washington but happy to attend black tie dinners there, and quick to say he voted for Trump twice. But he is emphatic that moment has passed.
“Trump is yesterday,” Sununu said. “He’s a definite factor. He could win the nomination. But I don’t think he can win in November.”
Over an apres-ski pale ale at the Kettlehead Brewery in Franklin, N.H., he derided Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina for pushing a national abortion ban in the closing weeks of the midterms and Senator Rick Scott of Florida for raising the possibility of cuts to Medicare and Social Security — two high-profile stances that he said alienated “average” voters.
“There’s a lot of people that have gotten elected that shocked me, how politically stupid they can be,” said Sununu, who described himself as a “rational conservative” by contrast.
“There’s a definite lesson to be learned here in ‘22, and I think I can tell you, I think voters got it,” Sununu said. “Nothing matters unless you have a candidate that can win.”
There is doubt on both sides of the aisle in New Hampshire that Sununu will actually run. He has three children; he will also have to contend with the effect his candidacy would have on other candidates’ willingness to campaign in a state that is desperately trying to hold on to its First in the Nation primary status. If he doesn’t, he said, he wants to help whittle a likely crowded field to lessen the chance that an unpopular candidate wins with only a sliver of support.
“The bigger question isn’t who runs,” Sununu said. “It’s who gets out.”
Jess Bidgood can be reached at Jess.Bidgood@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @jessbidgood.