MANCHESTER, N.H — Nikki Haley on Tuesday nabbed the biggest endorsement in New Hampshire politics, picking up the support of Republican Governor Chris Sununu in a major boost to her campaign in the first-in-the-nation primary state.
Sununu, the popular four-term governor here, has campaigned with many of the major GOP candidates in recent months but remained coy about who he planned to support. As he walked in Tuesday evening, he said, a Haley fan asked: Was he finally ready to endorse her?
“You bet your ass I am!” Sununu boomed to an enthusiastic crowd at the McIntyre Ski Area Lodge.
Sununu encouraged his state to support Haley, too, and made the case that the GOP here should move on from front-runner Donald Trump.
“We never choose yesterday’s news, right?” Sununu said. “This isn’t just a section of the party. This isn’t just an aberration. This is an opportunity for New Hampshire to lead this country — for New Hampshire to say, ‘We’re not looking in the rearview mirror anymore.’”
The power of any endorsement is debatable, particularly in a contest that’s still dominated by Trump. But Sununu could prove a powerful ally for Haley.
A Trump critic, the governor has pledged to put real campaign work behind his endorsement; he is expected to appear frequently with Haley and be a vocal surrogate on cable news and across the state. His backing could help consolidate voters opposed to Trump behind Haley and help her post at least a strong second-place showing in the Granite State, if not an upset.
As she entered the town hall on Tuesday, Haley embraced fans and then Sununu, to cheers from a crowd bearing red and navy Haley campaign hats, buttons, and signs.
“Did they come for you or did they come for me?” she joked.
“It doesn’t get any better than this,” Haley smiled. “To go and get endorsed by the ‘Live Free or Die’ governor is about as rock solid of an endorsement as we can get.”
The New Hampshire governor’s support could prove particularly meaningful as the field narrows. In a recent poll, 13 percent of GOP primary voters said Sununu’s endorsement would influence their own selection — a meaningful, if modest, well of support for candidates whose vote share still hovers in the teens.
Some analysts say Sununu’s endorsement could help his preferred candidate emerge from New Hampshire’s primary on Jan. 23 as the clear Trump alternative.
He could “put a stamp on her as, yes, she’s really the alternative to Trump,” said Jon McHenry, a national GOP pollster who grew up in the state, in an interview last week. “His endorsement won’t put her over the top, but it sort of keeps her in the game.”
But with Florida Governor Ron DeSantis already having secured the endorsement of Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds, the Sununu endorsement raises the possibility that Iowa and New Hampshire will deliver a split verdict about the best Trump alternative — make it all the easier for the former president to steamroll his way to the finish.
Haley, a former UN ambassador under Trump, has enjoyed a significant uptick in her support in New Hampshire, where she has hosted dozens of town halls since her official campaign launch 10 months ago. Polls have consistently shown her in a clear, albeit distant, second place behind Trump among the state’s likely GOP primary voters.
Sununu has been saying for weeks that he planned to endorse one of three GOP presidential candidates with gubernatorial experience: Haley, DeSantis, or former governor Chris Christie of New Jersey. Haley and Christie have spent far more time in New Hampshire than DeSantis, and Haley leads both men in the polls, making her a logical pick for the endorsement.
Christie — who has staked his campaign on New Hampshire — brushed off the snub Tuesday, with a spokesperson saying, “this puts us down one vote in New Hampshire.”
Sununu has called on other candidates to suspend their campaigns, so Republicans can consolidate their support around someone other than Trump.
“When you have 15 candidates, it’s hard for the average voter to really see that as a choice. ‘Oh yeah, we’ll just go with the front-runner.’ And that’s why Trump always leads in the polls,” Sununu told reporters in his office in late November.
Haley also secured a major endorsement last month from Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch network’s political arm, which plans to bolster her candidacy with targeted ads and insights gathered by its affiliates on the ground in New Hampshire and other key states.
For enthusiastic Haley fans at Tuesday’s event, Sununu’s endorsement was just one more reason to celebrate.
“She can handle herself. She proved that on the debate stage,” said Bob Kelley, 70, of Weare, N.H. Kelley said he was sold on Haley long before Sununu made his decision public, but he’s glad the governor took his time to decide.
He’s not “jumping on a bandwagon,” Kelley said. “This is gonna help quite a bit.”
When Carol Smith saw Haley in Londonderry four weeks ago, she said, her reaction was “Wow!”
“She’s articulate. She says what needs to be said,” said Smith, 70, of Hooksett, N.H. Then she cracked: “I can see her telling Putin to get a life.”
Smith — a registered Independent who said she always votes for Democrats — doesn’t agree with all of Haley’s policy positions, including on abortion, “but I respect her honesty,” she said.
Come January, Smith plans to cast her vote for Haley. That’ll make her the second Republican Smith has ever voted for, for any office — after Sununu.
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