BRETTON WOODS, N.H. — At a mountainside hotel in the middle of a snowstorm, New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) bounded to the front of a packed room and explained how he intended to impede Donald Trump’s march to the Republican nomination.
“The other guy” — Trump — makes speeches to large rooms, then “gets in his little fancy plane and flies back to Florida,” Sununu said. But the current contest in the state will be “won on the ground” in a last sprint of retail politicking. That’s something the candidate Sununu has endorsed, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, understands “more than anybody.”
If there is any chance to challenge Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, it begins Tuesday in New Hampshire. For Sununu, the state’s popular governor, the contest represents a last-ditch effort to influence the future of the Republican Party, which he has repeatedly said should not include Trump, even if much of his party disagrees.
Sununu has emerged as Haley’s most vocal surrogate, campaigning with her across the state and lending his own appeal and local acumen to her cause.
If Haley has a strong showing in New Hampshire and in the next primary in her home state of South Carolina, Sununu said, it will be a “one-on-one race going into Super Tuesday.” Then, he said, “anything is possible.”
The scion of a political dynasty who has served as New Hampshire’s governor since 2017, Sununu is the rare conservative leader who has managed to win votes from Democrats. He has said he wants the Republican Party to be more “approachable” and “normal” — a goal that looks increasingly quixotic as long as Trump remains its standard-bearer.
In many ways, the contest in New Hampshire is a microcosm of the struggle of old-school Republicans like Sununu to wrest the party away from the darker, more polarizing vision of Trump.
The former president has been “a disaster for this party,” said Sununu, 49. If Trump becomes the nominee, he added, it will be nearly impossible to attract new voters, including young people and independents.
Trump has taken note, calling Sununu “a spoiled brat,” “the most overrated governor” and “unelectable.”
Sununu dismissed Trump’s jabs. “Every time Trump attacks,” Sununu said, “he’s afraid.”
Sununu has insisted that the campaign is about the party’s future, not his own, which at least temporarily may not center on politics. He is not running for reelection as governor in November. Last year he explored his own presidential bid but ultimately decided not to run, saying it was more important to defeat Trump.
But Sununu will remain a key voice in the debate over the party’s post-Trump future, said Jim Merrill, a Republican political consultant in New Hampshire. “The conversation about what comes next will continue,” Merrill said, although it will be put on pause if Trump becomes the nominee.
Sununu’s efforts on behalf of Haley echo those of Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R). She backed Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) over Trump in her state’s caucuses, only to watch him lose ignominiously.
Sununu has introduced Haley at rallies and been at her side during visits to venues ranging from a candy store to a drug rehabilitation center, recognizable in his blue, zip-up jacket bearing the words “Ski NH.” On Thursday, the two stopped by Robie’s Country Store, a century-old building on the Merrimack River that has been a destination for presidential candidates since the 1970s.
Amid a scrum of cameras squeezed next to shelves of jams and pasta, Sununu called Haley “my new best friend.”
Catherine Johnson, 64, shook hands with Haley and Sununu. His endorsement “made a huge difference” to the primary race, she said. Johnson is a Democrat, but she credited Sununu for his leadership during the coronavirus pandemic and voted to reelect him as governor even when all her other votes went to Democrats.
“He has this genuineness about him,” she said.
Robert Clark, a 76-year-old Republican from Manchester, said his top priority “is stopping Trump” from winning the presidency a second time because he believes Trump is “incompetent.”
But Clark wasn’t thrilled about his choices on the GOP side. Then last year, Sununu endorsed Haley — prompting Clark to give her a fresh look.
“She just seems to be a competent person,” Clark said at his doorstep on a recent morning as he spoke to a canvasser with Americans for Prosperity Action, the flagship political group of the Koch network that is supporting Haley’s bid.
“I wanted an alternative, and I guess when Governor Sununu put his support behind her, then I decided,” he said. (If the general election becomes a rematch between Trump and Biden, Clark said, he will support Biden).
Trump has tried to blunt Haley’s appeal with a fusillade of messaging on issue after issue, aimed at casting her as an opponent of his MAGA movement who can only prevail with the support of Democrats and independents (in New Hampshire, undeclared voters can vote in either party’s primary).
By Sununu’s count, he has done more than 100 interviews as part of a strategy to counter Trump’s megaphone. “Trump has his zealots, his cult — whatever you want to call it — on Newsmax and these stations that will fight for him tooth and nail,” Sununu said.
In interviews with The Washington Post, Sununu offered empathy for some of the other candidates, along with unvarnished opinions. He called Vivek Ramaswamy, who dropped out of the race after Iowa, a “misogynistic fool.” DeSantis got “better on the trail” but didn’t spend enough time in New Hampshire to earn Sununu’s endorsement. Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie, who left the race before Iowa, had only one message and put all his focus on New Hampshire, Sununu said, describing Christie as “absolutely obsessed with being president.”
Sununu has been imbibing political strategy since childhood. His father, John H. Sununu, served as the sometimes combative governor of New Hampshire from 1983 to 1989. He then became chief of staff to President George H.W. Bush — the reward for helping Bush win the 1988 New Hampshire primary after what Sununu called a “see me, touch me, feel me” campaign, one much like Haley’s. The governor’s older brother, John E. Sununu, was a member of Congress from the state from 1997 to 2009, the last six years as senator.
After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the younger Sununu briefly attended film school before dropping out and walking the length of the Appalachian Trail from north to south (his trail name, a tradition among hikers, was “Fade Out,” a reference to his short-lived film career).
He worked as an environmental engineer in California before returning home to New Hampshire. He later ran a ski resort and won a seat on the state’s Executive Council before being elected governor in 2016. Even as his state trended more Democratic in national elections, he held on as a highly popular Republican.
Sununu has delivered on conservative priorities such as expanding charter schools and cutting taxes. He has vetoed attempts to tighten the state’s gun laws. In 2021, he signed into law a ban on abortions after 24 weeks but rejected calls to outlaw the procedure earlier in pregnancy, as many Republican-led states have done since the fall of Roe v. Wade.
Thomas Rath, a former Republican attorney general of New Hampshire, described Sununu as “an aggressive fiscal conservative with a smile” whose buoyant personality is hard to resist.
Sununu doesn’t take opposition personally, Rath added: Even after a disagreement, he’ll call you up the next day and make a joke. “Then you can laugh about who the Red Sox ought to have in left field,” Rath said.
Republicans tried to recruit Sununu to run for a Senate seat in 2022 against incumbent Maggie Hassan (D), but he turned them down. Sununu has no second thoughts about not running. Nobody ever says “I really regret not joining the circus,” he told the Boston Globe last year.
Sununu described his own possible presidential run with detachment. “I gave it six months and I’m like, I don’t want to do this,” he said in an interview last week. But he also faced ideological impediments that would have made it difficult to succeed in Republican primaries, including having described himself as “pro-choice.”
Running for president “would have been a great story and a fun ride, but it wasn’t right,” Sununu said. “I don’t need to pile on the me, me, me campaign to help myself anymore. It’s really got to be about the bigger picture.”
The bigger picture is the uphill battle to steer the party away from Trump. Yet Sununu says he will still vote for Trump if he is the Republican nominee. “There’s no question we’re better off without Biden in the White House,” he said.
Sununu jokes that after the November election, he’s going to put a suggestion box in the foyer of his office to solicit ideas for his future. But he’s leaning toward something in the private sector, maybe as an adviser to large companies. And perhaps some kind of media role to “keep my fingers in the political pie a little bit.”
Of course, if Haley pulls off an upset in the Republican race — and in the general election — all that could change.
After an event at an American Legion post in Rochester, N.H., Haley stayed to take selfies and speak with anyone who wanted to until there was no line left. Sununu shook hands, greeted people he recognized and gave an impromptu media briefing.
As the crowd thinned, Kathy Easler, 77, approached Sununu and asked if he would consider being Haley’s vice president. He demurred. “Washington is not a fun place,” Sununu said. “Nikki can handle Washington, she’s got the grit.”
Easler turned to find her granddaughter. She was not convinced by Sununu’s reluctance. “Hey, we’ve all heard them say no before,” Easler said with a knowing smile, then headed back out into the January night.