CONCORD, N.H. — Governor Chris Sununu seems to have grown less subtle about his aspirations for the White House. What sounded months ago like a breathy hint of possibility now sounds more like a steady drumbeat of intent.
Sununu hasn’t said yet whether he’ll seek the Republican presidential nomination in 2024, but he has taken numerous steps — like running the national media circuit and launching a political action committee — that signal he’s seriously considering it.
That leaves an obvious question: If he runs for president, then who will run for governor?
Democratic gubernatorial candidates have lost to Sununu four times in a row. The state senators who challenged him in 2020 and 2022 fell short by double-digit margins. That track record leads some Democrats to believe their best opportunity to reclaim the chief executive job won’t come until Sununu, 48, decides he’s done seeking reelection.
Sununu enjoys a strong approval rating that ranks him among the nation’s top 10 governors. But it’s not clear how well that support would translate into New Hampshire’s first-in-the-nation primary, where he’s polling behind former president Donald Trump and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is widely viewed as Trump’s top potential challenger.
What’s more, a majority of New Hampshire’s likely GOP primary voters said Sununu shouldn’t launch a presidential bid, according to a recent poll by the University of New Hampshire Survey Center.
In the meantime, New Hampshire politicos have been abuzz about who is most likely to step up and run for governor. Several names have bubbled to the surface from both sides of the aisle. Here’s the lowdown on where those potential candidates stand.
Possible GOP candidates
The potential Republican candidates whose names come up most often among political insiders include former New Hampshire Senate president Chuck Morse, current education commissioner Frank Edelblut, and former US senator Kelly Ayotte.
Morse may be the one to watch. He met with Edelblut and Ayotte months ago to let them know he’ll “absolutely” run for governor if Sununu runs for president, according to GOP consultant Dave Carney, who advised Morse’s 2022 campaign for US Senate. Morse would be a formidable candidate and ready for a contested primary, Carney said.
While keeping up with his “day job” running Freshwater Farms, a garden center in Atkinson, Morse has been speaking to various groups and laying the groundwork for his potential campaign’s financial operation, but he won’t preempt Sununu’s move, Carney said.
“We’re just getting prepared for whatever the governor decides,” he added.
Morse, 62, left office in December 2022 after 12 years in the New Hampshire Senate, but he has kept in contact with state lawmakers. He even testified earlier this month in favor of the Senate’s parental rights bill, then he sent photos and his written testimony to supporters on his e-mail list.
Morse already has a bit of gubernatorial work experience under his belt. He served as acting governor for two days in January 2017 before Sununu’s first inauguration. The outgoing governor, Maggie Hassan, had stepped aside, so she could be sworn in as a US senator.
Ayotte, 54, served one term in the US Senate. She lost her bid for reelection in 2016 to Hassan by just 1,017 votes. Some had hoped she would run against Hassan again in 2022, but she declined to do so.
Ayotte served previously as New Hampshire’s attorney general. She could not be reached for comment about the 2024 gubernatorial contest.
Edelblut, 61, said in early April on “Good Morning NH” with Jack Heath that he would “absolutely consider” running for governor again in 2024, as he did in 2016, when he lost to Sununu in the GOP primary. He did not respond to the Globe’s request for comment.
Another prominent Republican official whose name has been floated as a possible gubernatorial candidate, current Senate President Jeb Bradley, said he’s not interested in a 2024 gubernatorial bid. Bradley told the Globe he’s enjoying his current role.
Possible Democratic candidates
The potential Democratic candidates whose names come up most often as insiders discuss the 2024 contest include Executive Councilor Cinde Warmington, outgoing Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig, and former state Senator Tom Sherman.
As the only Democrat on the five-member Executive Council, Warmington, 64, is currently the highest-ranking member of her party in state office. She and her fellow councilors check the governor’s power by reviewing appointments, nominations, and state contracts of $10,000 or greater. As a leader in her party, Warmington has also spent the past few years building public awareness and political infrastructure around the council.
Warmington told the Globe in late March that a lot of people have been asking her about the 2024 governor’s race. But the state’s biennial budget season that’s currently underway is a time to talk about collaborative problem-solving, not electoral politics, she said.
“If we inject politics into this process right now, it’s going to be harder to get things done for the people of New Hampshire,” she said. “That’s what we need to be focused on right now. There’s time for politics later.”
In Manchester, Mayor Craig announced in March that she won’t seek reelection this year. That cleared the way for Democrats to announce their plans to run against the Republican mayoral candidate who had already stepped forward. It also raised questions about her next move.
Craig served previously as a Manchester school board member then an alderman before she became the first woman to serve as mayor of the largest city in northern New England. Her third two-year term in that role runs through the end of the year. She expressed openness to seeking another office thereafter but wouldn’t say which one.
“I have nine months left to serve as mayor of the city of Manchester,” Craig said in March, “and I will be doing that with my full focus and will be considering how I can best serve our community going forward.”
Sherman, 65, was serving his second term in the New Hampshire Senate when he lost his 2022 gubernatorial campaign to Sununu by more than 15 percentage points. He celebrated that outcome as a significant improvement over 2020, when the Democratic nominee lost to Sununu by more than 31 points.
“For me, the tragedy of 2022 isn’t that Tom Sherman wasn’t elected,” Sherman said. “The tragedy is that everything that we said was going to happen if Chris Sununu were reelected is happening. He’s absent. He’s not in the state. He’s out campaigning everywhere else.”
Sherman told the Globe that his 2022 run could help him in any potential future bid: “I have $2 million worth of investment in statewide name recognition from the last campaign.” But it’s still too early to make a decision on whether to run again in 2024, he said, especially since he’s focused on supporting Democratic candidates, committees, and causes in 2023.
“If I were to announce I’m running for governor, that takes me out of that role because all of sudden I become a candidate, not a cheerleader,” he said. “And I’d rather be a cheerleader for everyone in my party.”
Another prominent Democratic official whose name has been floated as a possible 2024 gubernatorial candidate, US Representative Chris Pappas, signaled on Jack Heath’s radio show in late March that he’s not currently interested.
“It’s my intention,” Pappas said, “to run for reelection, to the job that I currently hold, in 2024.”