WINDHAM, N.H. — It’s pouring rain Saturday morning as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) arrives at Mary Ann’s diner in Windham, fielding calls and texts as he monitors potential flooding in the marshes along the state’s seacoast where he’s headed next.
But he’s stopping here first because there are only nine days left before the New Hampshire primary. His endorsement of Nikki Haley in December gave her a jolt of momentum in the most important of the early states for her prospects. Now he and other Haley allies believe New Hampshire holds her best chance of stopping Donald Trump from winning the Republican nomination. Snow and freezing temperatures have wreaked havoc on the final get-out-the-vote effort in Iowa, which will launch the nominating contest Monday. The governor wants to ensure Haley’s volunteers are in the right frame of mind as they set out for a wet day of canvassing.
Sununu is planning the final stretch of the New Hampshire race as though it was one of his own campaigns — poring over state maps with Haley’s aides and his own as he sketches out days filled with a half-dozen to a dozen retail campaign stops that will stretch for more than 12 hours “at a minimum,” he says.
“Keep smiling,” the four-term governor tells Haley’s door-knockers in the diner parking lot. He prepares Haley’s more youthful volunteers for uncomfortable interactions with voters who peek through the curtain, slam their doors or won’t open them.
How much his support will matter on Election Day remains to be seen. A November Washington Post-Monmouth University poll showed 80 percent of New Hampshire Republican primary voters said it would make no difference in their decision. He has long clashed with Trump, who excoriated Sununu at a December campaign stop in New Hampshire as a “spoiled brat.”
He warns that the race is “getting really tight” as he explains why door-knocking matters: “No other campaign for president has an army like this,” he says, referring not only to Haley’s cohort but also the supportive efforts of dozens of door-knockers who are fanned out for Americans for Prosperity Action, the flagship group of the Koch network that endorsed her.
The son of the former governor John H. Sununu and the brother of a former U.S. senator gives the volunteers a quick tutorial on the importance of New Hampshire retail politics: “People have heard the policies; they’ve seen the ads; it’s the door-knocking and that one-on-one connection that drives them,” Sununu tells the group.
Moments later, Sununu hits the doors himself in a baseball cap and a “Ski N.H.” jacket as the rain comes down in sheets in a nearby neighborhood. He walks through enormous puddles that are forming in the driveways in his work boots, carrying a black Sharpie and Haley’s literature.
He studies the voters’ names on the walk sheet, Amy and James, as he approaches the first house. The man who opens the door briefly muscles a barking dog back from the entryway as Sununu tries to introduce himself.
“I’m not interested. Sorry. Don’t like your politics,” the man tells him.
“Okay great,” Sununu answers as the door slams in his face.
He laughs as he walks to the next house: “We’ll put them in the ‘maybe’ column.”
The next voter is friendlier, stopping for Sununu while pulling into his driveway. He shakes the governor’s hand through the car window and takes a Haley door-hanger as Sununu encourages him to vote for her to send “things in a different direction for the Republican Party.”
“You’ve got to fix the abortion issue,” the voter tells him, adding that Democrats have “weaponized” it, leading to Republicans losses in the midterm elections. “She just wants the states to decide — that way, you and I as voters just have more say, which I like a lot,” replies Sununu. (Haley has said she does “believe there is a federal role on abortion” but has been vague about specifics.)
Sununu has adopted a far more moderate position than Haley in his own state and shares the view that Republicans have a major problem with their messaging. He writes a note with the Sharpie — “Sorry I missed you” — and signs his name on each door-hanger he leaves if the voter is not home.
The GOP governor was immersed in retail politics as a kid on his dad’s campaigns and he’s honed it through his four gubernatorial campaigns. He doesn’t trust the polls, which underestimated Trump’s support in 2016 and, in his view, are now overestimating it.
When Haley lands here after Iowa, he plans to ensure that his state’s voters see the contrast between Trump’s and Haley’s styles. He describes Trump as “a kind of a rich elitist who flies in on his private jet and private helicopter. Talks at people; doesn’t let them ask any questions or engage and flies out of here,” Sununu said.
“The final week isn’t about a message,” he added. “The final week is about connection.”