(The Center Square) – When Chris Sununu took over the governor’s office more than three years ago, he came to the job with built-in name recognition, as a member of one of New Hampshire's most storied political dynasties.
But longtime political observers say Sununu, 46, who handily won a third-term in the Nov. 3 election, has expanded on his family legacy and become one of – if not the most – popular Republicans in a state that’s tilting increasingly blue.
“As a candidate, he is a very likable guy, and that goes a long way in this state,” says Andy Smith, an associate professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire and director of the university’s survey center. “As a governor, he’s been a typical New England Republican, pro-business and low-tax, certainly not a social conservative.”
In Tuesday’s presidential election, New Hampshire voters delivered a decisive win to Democrat Joe Biden and sent three incumbent Democratic lawmakers back to Congress, including Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, who won a third term.
But Granite State voters also sent Sununu back to the governor’s office with more than 65% of the vote, according to preliminary results, and elected Republican majorities in the state House of Representatives, Senate and Executive Council. The Newfields Republican, who outperformed Republican President Donald Trump among the state’s GOP voters, has seen his margin of victory increase with every election.
Longtime observers say that's an indication he has expanded support among the state’s majority undeclared or “independent” voters, as well as Democrats.
"He is the most popular Republican in New Hampshire, bar none,” said Dante Scala, a political science professor at the University of New Hampshire. “Sununu has been very adept making sure that he remains within the mainstream of his party while appealing to people outside of his party. And that’s no mean trick.”
Earlier this year, Sununu was ranked as the nation’s 5th most popular governor in a Morning Consult poll, which lists governors by home-state approval ratings. Sununu's approval rating was more than 68%.
But observers say Sununu’s handling of the coronavirus outbreak has put his popularity on par with former Gov. John Lynch, a Democrat whose management of devastating floods in 2012 made him one of the state's most popular governors.
"When you’re faced with a crisis, you’ve got the opportunity to improve things people give you credit for that,” Smith, of UNH, said. "Sununu's job favorability rating on handling of the pandemic is very high, even among Democrats."
Sununu was the youngest governor in the country when he took office in 2017. His lineage hails from one of the state’s most storied political families.
His mother, Nancy Sununu, served as the New Hampshire GOP Party chairwoman during the rancorous 1980 presidential primary. His father, John H. Sununu, served as governor and later as the chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush. His older brother, John E. Sununu, represented the state in Congress from 1997 to 2009 first as a member of the U.S. House, and later the Senate.
Scala said the state’s Democrats have tried unsuccessfully to tie Sununu to Trump’s divisive rhetoric and policies, but said it “hasn't worked very well.”
Sununu has clashed with the state’s Democratic controlled Legislature over proposals such as the controversial “right-to-work” law, school choice, taxes and gun control. But he has also won praise from top Democrats for his handling of the state’s pandemic and other bipartisan intitiviates.
There are no term limits for New Hampshire governors. Political observers say Sununu’s current popularity could ensure him a long tenure in the governor’s office, but most doubt he’ll stick around any longer than four terms.
To be sure, the pay is low, you have to run for reelection every two years, and the clout of the office is blunted by the powerful Executive Council. Lynch, the state's longest serving governor, walked away from the job after only eight years.
“There certainly will be pressure on Sununu to consider higher office, but he really seems to enjoy being governor,” Scala said. “And these days being a senator isn’t as appealing as it once was, given the chaotic situation in Washington D.C..”