Nov. 3, 2020, remains a distant destination on the horizon for statewide political campaigns in New Hampshire.
Yet with candidates already emerging to challenge Republican Gov. Chris Sununu and Democratic U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, some dynamics are worth looking out for in their re-election bids, according to two prominent Granite State political scientists.
In the governor’s race, N.H. Senate Majority leader Dan Feltes, 40, of Concord became the first Democrat to officially launch a bid to unseat Sununu. He released a four-minute campaign video Tuesday, highlighting his legislative efforts in the new Democratic majorities in the Statehouse that he says have been thwarted by a slew of Sununu vetoes.
Executive Councilor Andru Volinksy, 63, of Concord has launched an exploratory committee to scope out a potential run, and will be among 19 Democratic presidential candidates and New Hampshire leaders speaking at the N.H. Democratic Party Convention in Manchester Saturday.
The Democrats’ 2016 gubernatorial nominee, former state senator Molly Kelly, 69, of Harrisville told The Sentinel in May that she is considering another run, but has yet to take any further steps. And her primary opponent from that year, former Portsmouth mayor Steve Marchand, likewise said in May that he’s mulling a return bid, and has the blessing to do so from his new boss, Democratic presidential candidate Andrew Yang.
In the Senate race, three Republican candidates have officially declared: retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, 57, of Stratham; former N.H. House speaker Bill O’Brien, 68, of Mont Vernon; and Wolfeboro lawyer Bryant “Corky” Messner, 62.
Corey Lewandowski, 45, of Windham — best known for serving as President Donald Trump’s first campaign manager in 2016 — has been the subject of speculation in the national press as to whether he’ll enter the race, and he earned a shout out from Trump at the president’s mid-August rally in Manchester.
One of the greatest strengths for Shaheen and Sununu as incumbents is their name recognition across the Granite State, according to University of New Hampshire political scientists Dante Scala and Andrew Smith.
Shaheen, 72, served as New Hampshire’s 78th governor from 1997 to 2003 before her election to the U.S. Senate in 2009.
Sununu, 44, the Granite State’s 82nd governor, carries the mantle of the biggest name brand in New Hampshire politics. His father, John H. Sununu, served as the 75th governor from 1983 to 1989 before serving as then-President George H.W. Bush’s chief of staff from 1989 to 1991.
The patriarch’s tenure in that latter role left a historical legacy examined in Chris Whipple’s 2017 book “The Gatekeepers: How the White House Chiefs of Staff Define Every Presidency,” as well as in a lengthy 2018 New York Times Magazine piece by Nathaniel Rich investigating John H. Sununu’s opposition to global action on climate change when scientists were sounding the alarm bell.
Chris Sununu’s older brother, John E. Sununu, was one of New Hampshire’s two U.S. representatives from 1997 to 2003, and defeated Shaheen in her first U.S. Senate bid in 2002 before losing his seat to her six years later.
For Smith, Shaheen’s durability among New Hampshire voters going back to when she first won Concord’s corner office is her greatest strength.
“Here we are 20-plus years later, 24 years later, and she has only lost one election during that time [to John E. Sununu],” Smith said. “So she, going into this race, has got to be considered the front-runner.”
As for Sununu, Scala described his prospects as “solid” given his name recognition and high favorability ratings amid a strong Granite State economy.
“I think that Governor Sununu, like Shaheen, has the advantage of being a household name in New Hampshire, and therefore, just like we saw in the last midterm [in 2018], he can run his own race independent of the rest of the Republican ticket to a considerable degree,” Scala said.
Although Trump has potential primary challengers — such as former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who discussed his prospects with The Sentinel while fishing on a Gilsum pond in June — his approval remains well above the 80th percentile among New Hampshire Republicans. Democrats, on the other hand, have a robust primary gearing up to Feb. 11, 2020.
Either way, Smith says the high attention given to the presidential race makes it “much harder” for Sununu and Shaheen’s challengers trying to introduce themselves to voters.
“There’s only a certain amount of political bandwidth that anybody has, and we’re frankly, as a state, not going to really start paying attention to the 2020 general election for those offices until after the New Hampshire [presidential] primary is over,” Smith said.
With Sununu being the third most popular governor in the country — with his job approval rating averaging over 60 percent in polling — Smith notes that Feltes and Volinksy have yet to even be tested in statewide polling, making efforts to build their name recognition all the more important.
Shaheen, meanwhile, could be more tethered to the Democratic nominee who ends up facing Trump, Scala notes.
Likewise, her Republican opponent will be tied to how well Trump is received by New Hampshire voters come November 2020, according to Scala, with the president seeing a net approval rating of negative 11 percent among Granite State voters overall, according to an August UNH poll.
‘It’s the economy, stupid.’
For all of the incumbency and name-ID advantages Sununu may enjoy as governor, Scala pointed out one particularly difficult scenario for him.
“His concern has to be what I would call ‘the double whammy,’ “ Scala said. “One, a recession hits New Hampshire and the country, of course. You’ve got an economic recession, unemployment spikes, and the president becomes increasingly unpopular. You get those two things together — economic recession with real impact on New Hampshire voters, plus an unpopular president that Democrats will tie you to at every moment — that would be concerning.”
Similarly, Smith points to longstanding political science research that shows how executives — mainly governors and presidents — are often given the most credit and blame for the state of the economy.
Senators like Shaheen, Smith says, are harder to pin down to specific accomplishments because of their role in the nation’s bicameral legislature.
“And certainly Sununu has the ability to campaign on the fact that New Hampshire has got a really good economy right now, and I think that’s likely to be the factor that’s gonna get him over the top,” he said.
But overall, Smith stresses that voters take early prognostications with a grain of salt this prematurely in a campaign cycle.
“It’s really early in the game for us to pay that much attention to what’s going on.”