We saw a crowded Republican debate stage of seven candidates last Wednesday night — the kind of big field that worries New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, who has argued that candidates need to drop out if one or two strong rivals emerge to stop former President Donald Trump from winning the G.O.P. nomination.
But can any of that happen? How? And do Republican voters even want Mr. Trump stopped? I spoke with the Mr. Sununu the day after the debate, and he described his vision for what an alternative could look like on a policy front, what it means to be a governor and whether Mr. Trump has fundamentally changed America. “Jerks may come and go, bad leaders may come and go,” he said, “but our institutions have stood through the test of times.” Mr. Sununu has served as governor of New Hampshire since 2017, and has maintained high levels of support from the battleground state that has otherwise voted for statewide Democrats in recent cycles.
This interview, which has been edited for length and clarity, is part of an Opinion Q. and A. series exploring modern conservatism today, its influence in society and politics and how and why it differs (and doesn’t) from the conservative movement that most Americans thought they knew.
Jane Coaston: It is the day after the second G.O.P. debate. Did anyone impress you last night?
Gov. Chris Sununu: I think they were all very chippy. Tim Scott and Doug Burgum really knew that they had to push their way into the conversation, knowing that they had kind of gotten boxed out a little bit the first time. DeSantis did what he had to do, similar with the first one.
Nikki Haley did a couple things. She showed she wasn’t a flash in the pan. I think she effectively won the first debate in that she showed them fire, she showed a good knowledge base. In the second debate, she didn’t disappoint either. I think she showed some grit and some fortitude.
Elections are about choices. A real differentiation is saying, “I know where my opponent stands on these issues. I know exactly what their record is, and I can contrast that here.” She just seems very astute about everybody else’s record. And I think that does her very, very well in those debates.
The other thing is that they finally started pulling at Donald Trump a little bit, in terms of his record. Again, Trump had some good ideas and good policies, but he couldn’t really execute on them. And again, showing that differentiation between someone who can actually execute on the policy, as opposed to someone who disagrees with the policy is a very important thing.
Coaston: In The Times, you wrote, “In Iowa and New Hampshire, the first two states that will vote in the 2024 Republican contests, Mr. Trump is struggling. In both Iowa and New Hampshire, he is consistently polling in the low 40 percent range. The floor of his support may be high, but his ceiling is low.” In New Hampshire and Iowa, Trump is leading by double digits. So if his ceiling is low, why is his floor so high? Why has his momentum stayed so consistent?
Sununu: He does have this extremely strong base of populist Republican support. Folks that just will stand behind him no matter what, no matter all his faults. And we’ve seen that since 2016, right?
In a recent poll, he was pulling in about 39 percent in New Hampshire. Which is actually really bad, by the way. I mean, he’s the former president, the voice of the G.O.P. for six years. Even with his base voters, he can’t get above 40 percent? And then the second part of that same poll is very interesting. About a third of his supporters would consider somebody else. So they’re not even that rock solid.
Coaston: Gov. Chris Christie is polling well in New Hampshire, but not as well anywhere else. How can he grow his vote if he can? And do you think he could plausibly beat Trump for the nomination?
Sununu: I think that’s a really good question. I like Chris a lot, I have the same concerns, but I think you’re expressing that he doesn’t seem to have created a strong ground game in any other state other than New Hampshire. So, New Hampshire can’t be your one and only, right? His poll numbers are decent, because he’s really willing to take on Trump, and that shows you that there’s a decent amount of people within the party that would just want to back the strongest anti-Trumper, which obviously he is.
But where it goes from there, I’m not sure. I don’t know his campaign; I don’t know his ground game other than it doesn’t seem to be anywhere else but New Hampshire. That would make it really challenging, as opposed to just being a disrupter. If he actually wants to close the deal and win the primary with just New Hampshire in his back pocket, knowing that South Carolina and Florida come after that, you can’t be no-shows in Iowa, South Carolina and Florida.
Coaston: There’s a type of current Republican governor who’s been critical of Donald Trump, or come under fire from him, or just managed to be a different kind of Republican than him. I’m thinking of you, I’m thinking of Brian Kemp in Georgia. I’m thinking of Spencer Cox in Utah. And you’re all fairly popular in your own states. What do you attribute the popularity to?
Sununu: Being popular isn’t just galvanizing your base, and ignoring the independents and the Democrats, right? Being popular is about governing for all of your constituents. Being conservative in your values and your principles, and being able to stand behind them, that’s great. But the job isn’t just to support your party; it’s to support, especially as a governor, your entire population, regardless of what services they need, where they go to school, what their business might be, it really has to be that way.
Coaston: Do you see similarities between yourself and Governor Cox and Governor Kemp, ideologically? Is there a policy through line that connects you?
Sununu: One thing that definitely link us all together is fiscal responsibility. A governor has to manage the finances of the state, balance the budgets, make sure the programs are properly funded. We don’t have printing presses like they do in Washington, which is a good thing.
Governors have to understand the aspects of management, managing people, accountability, metrics of success.
Coaston: So that actually goes with my theory. Normal people don’t think about politics as an end goal, but politics is the means by which they get the things that they want or don’t want. I think that’s to me, why there are so many popular Republican governors of blue states, and so many just popular governors writ large. Being governor isn’t a messaging vehicle, it’s an actual job.
Sununu: I think governors started getting the credit they deserve during the pandemic, right? Congress passed a couple bills early on, and then they disappeared for political reasons. And the governor shouldered all the responsibility of managing each of the states uniquely. That’s really what started defining the red states and the blue states more than ever, right? Where the governors stood. Because how the governors managed tended to really differentiate along those lines. Blue states were very closed; red states tended to be more open. We all did it a little differently.
You had to handle some pretty tough decisions that probably a good portion of the people were going to get upset with you on almost anything you did. So you had to be affable and approachable with a sense of transparency to re-instill public trust.
Having good ideas is one thing, being able to manage and be accountable to it is another. And being able to do that in a public sphere with Congress. Congress doesn’t work for the president. I mean, Trump literally didn’t understand that for a while. Congress is their own entity, and you have to work with them, and manage a lot of what you want to do with their process, in order to achieve a goal and be able to move something forward.
Coaston: You recently said, of Donald Trump and our institutions: “Trump’s too dumb to be a danger to democracy. Let’s not give him that much credit.” Now, recently, he suggested that General Milley should have been put to death. That there should be investigations into NBC for “treason.” How do you think about how voters see that and those kinds of comments? Do they not take him seriously, or are they into what he’s saying, or are they just not seeing it? Because there’s an argument to be made that many stupid people have done terrible things.
Sununu: Trump speaks in hyperbole. He’s outrageous. And sometimes his hyperbole, he believes it. When Trump says these outrageous things, they don’t go, “Oh my God, I can’t believe he said that.” Nobody says that about Donald Trump anymore, right? They just take a lot of what he says with a grain of salt because he’s looking for the headline. He knows how to work the media and work the headlines. And that’s always been his M.O.
Now, the way I try to define is this: A single individual is rarely, if ever, a threat to democracy in this country. Because we have a system of foundational institutions that really, for lack of a better term, are unwavering in a very good way. And the example I gave in that discussion was, we had a Civil War for goodness sakes. As tough and as horrific as that was, at the end of the Civil War, we didn’t have to change Congress or change the presidency.
1968. I wasn’t here for it, but my goodness, when you had great American voices being assassinated, not shouted down. Literally assassinated while the Vietnam War was going on, while you had the Nixon [campaign] going on. People said it’s over. Democracy’s ending, this country’s doomed. It was a tough time, but we got through it. You had 9/11, right? And it’s a massive external threat. Our foundations, our institutions stood strong. Nothing fundamentally varied after that.
You had the pandemic. You had Jan. 6. The fact that Congress met and certified the election and there was a peaceful transfer of power. Trump walked out the door. As much of a stink as he made that the election fraud in Jan. 6 and all this stuff, he still walked out the door.
Jerks may come and go, bad leaders may come and go, but our institutions have stood through the test of times. I might disagree with policy, I might disagree that things are too liberal or too socialist, and other folks might think they’re too conservative or whatever it is. But that’s just policy and politics.
Democracy at its core is solid. Our institutions at their core are solid. They really are. We’re not falling apart just because you have a couple idiots on top of the ticket on both sides, saying ridiculous things. It can be very disheartening, but it is also temporary. And it’s nature.
[The U.S. government has continued to operate for a long time, and there is a real argument to be made that Jan. 6 ultimately reflected institutional resilience. It’s also true that through various crises in American life, there have often been changes to the shape and scope of government — from the 14th Amendment to the authorization for use of military force following Sept. 11. This is a longer conversation and debate.]
Coaston: There’s a case that Trump really achieved a lot of the things conservative Republicans have long wanted. He built a strong conservative majority on the Supreme Court. His justices helped repeal Roe v. Wade. He cut taxes. Do you think that’s how your average Republican voter sees him as part of the continuum, or do you think that what people think of as “conservative” has changed?
Sununu: Trump did get some good things done. I think he had some good ideas. But his failure was twofold. Number one, he said there were some really important things that he said he was going to do, and he just didn’t even try. Fiscal responsibility, completely out the door. The least fiscally responsible Republican president in history.
He said he was going to secure the border. He didn’t secure the border. He barely touched it. He tried. Don’t get me wrong. I think he tried that, but he didn’t know how to work with Congress to negotiate and get something done. Now where he was able to get wins, this is the second part where he really fell down. He would get a win, and then almost immediately step all over it. And say something completely unrelated and outrageous or outlandish, or do something that the media jumped all over.
And at the end of the day, he’s so divisive. I think what people are most frustrated with, what I’m most frustrated with, is he costs us seats. In a state like mine, as a Republican, you end up having to almost answer for the guy, and give excuses for the guy, as opposed to just talking about issues, and standing on your own two feet about what you are going to bring to the table as a candidate or offer to your community.
I think Chris Christie actually, if you see his closing statement at last week’s debate, I think Chris really summed this up very, very well. We’re tired of the drama, we’re tired of making excuses. We might agree with him on policy. He didn’t get enough stuff done.
Coaston: Forget the names of the candidates for a second. If you could see the field narrowed down, where it would just be Trump and another person or two, in your ideal world, what issues would that candidate be emphasizing, in terms of policy?
Sununu: Local control, limited government, decentralizing Washington, D.C., balancing budgets and fiscal responsibility. If you have that core mind-set, everything else gets easier, everything else becomes possible. And America gets better because that empowers the citizens with more control back in their states, their hometowns, their cities, whatever it might be. We’ve just gotten to a place where Washington, even the Republicans in Washington, think that they’re the most important thing, and they’re not. The states are. We created Washington.
Coaston: Now, governor, I love federalism. I truly do. But do you think that candidate would appeal to voters? I think that a lot of voters now, you see people who are like, “But this terrible thing is happening in this state I don’t live in. Make them stop.”
Sununu: So, the mind-set I’m talking about definitely appeals in a general election. There’s no doubt. You need to work extra hard to get that message to carry through. But at its core, it’s the best form of government.
I want to hand you the control, you the power, you the say, as an individual, what’s happening in your community. If you can articulate that, and get people there — it’s not easy. I think we do pretty well in New Hampshire. I think that’s one of the reasons that I stay popular. I’m not trying to control every town. I’m not trying to control every school board.
Coaston: Why didn’t you run for president?
Sununu: First, I have a 24/7 job. I would have had to really ignore a lot of very important aspects of what’s happening, and New Hampshire’s crushing it right now. I love the state; I didn’t want to basically live in Iowa for six months. That would have been the strategy, right?
Plant yourself in Iowa, surprise everybody with a solid win or second place there, crush it here in New Hampshire, and then it’s me and Trump. And after that, I’d beat him. So there was a path. The second piece was, my family really wasn’t into it. And it’s such an endeavor.
Coaston: Do you think Donald Trump will win the New Hampshire primary this winter?
Sununu: Well, I hope not. He could. He very well could. Most voters that actually vote in the primary won’t make up their minds till after Thanksgiving. Trump has more to lose than the other candidates, if he were to lose New Hampshire and Iowa. The other candidates don’t necessarily have to win New Hampshire and Iowa. One of them or two of them just have to stand out as the clear second and third choice to Trump.
So the field massively narrows down after New Hampshire, and then we go from there. And those candidates or candidate, if it’s just one especially, would have a ton of political momentum, a ton of money flowing into their campaign, a ton of opportunity to really turn on the jets, if you will, and fire forward to take Trump on one-on-one within the Republican primary process. And I believe very strongly, leave him behind.
If six of those individuals on that stage have the discipline to get out when they need to get out, it’s Trump and one other person, and Trump loses. Think of it that way. Just those six individuals. They all have the same fundamental goal, for Trump not to be the nominee. But if they can just put a little bit of the ego and self-interest aside, and as soon as there’s no longer a very clear path to victory, they got to get out. If they have the discipline to do that early, it’ll all work.
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