The Cable

Even the Former Governor of New Hampshire Has No Idea Who Will Win Its Primary

John Sununu says if Trump or Cruz top the ticket, the Republicans will lose the Senate.

PORTSMOUTH, NH - FEBRUARY 04:  Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Great Bay Community College on February 4, 2016 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. New Hampshire's primary is next Tuesday, February 9, 2016.  (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)
PORTSMOUTH, NH - FEBRUARY 04: Republican presidential hopeful Donald Trump speaks at a rally at Great Bay Community College on February 4, 2016 in Portsmouth, New Hampshire. New Hampshire's primary is next Tuesday, February 9, 2016. (Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images)

John H. Sununu is the former governor of New Hampshire, the former chairman of the New Hampshire Republican State Committee, and the former chief of staff for President George H.W. Bush. But he is flummoxed by the current GOP field of presidential contenders — and by how Donald Trump has managed to sway Granite Staters preparing to vote Tuesday in the “first in the nation” primary.

“I have admitted publicly that I really don’t — for the first time in almost 100 years — I have, really, not a very good feeling for the electorate this year, and how they’re responding to both rhetoric and substance,” he told Foreign Policy Wednesday. “There’s a discomfort in the country, an anger in the country, that somehow is making people respond more emotionally than intellectually.”

Sununu says he won’t make any endorsements (his son is running for governor), but has made clear who isn’t getting his backing: the rhetoric-peddlers he referenced. Earlier this month, he penned an op-ed in the Manchester Union Leader pleading with his state’s voters not to “drink the Trump Kool-Aid” and followed up Monday with “he may be rich, but he’s not bright.” Trump still leads Republicans in the New Hampshire primary polls after losing the Iowa caucus to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), and very nearly to Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla). But he puts Cruz in the same category as Trump, believing the businessman and Texas senator to both be liabilities for the GOP.

“The big concern I have about them is not that they’re non-establishment — it’s if either one of them is at the top of the ticket, I am convinced that Republicans will lose the U.S. Senate,” he said. “The base will not come out and vote.”

That concern, he said, has led a number of Republicans to conclude they need a nominee “that can really galvanize the party.” He pointed out that Republicans represent roughly 35 percent of Americans — so while Trump may have 25 or 30 percent in the polls, that only represents some 10 percent support nationwide. “So he’s got a solid 10 percent and 90 percent hate him, and that’s not a good formula for winning the presidency,” he said. “Cruz can’t get the endorsement of one of his colleagues in the Senate, so that’s not a good indicator of pulling the party together.”

He says national security is still a top issue in New Hampshire, noting it boosted the campaigns of former presidents Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush in the state. Still, he said, “style is overcoming the substance of issues.”

“So hot rhetoric — hot, meaningless rhetoric — seems to be making an impact,” he said.

But not all’s lost. Sununu says from recently talking to voters in the state, he sees a few variables that could lead to a surprise Tuesday night. There’s hints of a “return to substance,” a still-sizable portion of undecided or mutable voters, and what he calls “strategic votes” — people considering voting for their second or third choice to “allow one of the smart, traditional candidates to be more competitive” moving into South Carolina and the big primary days to come.

“For example, someone who might have been supporting [Sen.] Rand Paul might vote for Rubio to give him added credibility to stand up against the non-establishment candidates,” Sununu said.

He hopes for one of the “four rational candidates” — Govs. Chris Christie of New Jersey and John Kasich of Ohio, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, or Rubio — each of whom he says would “be a good president and bring the country together.” Sununu acknowledged Rubio never served as a state-level executive. But he said the senator’s prior experience as the speaker of the Florida state House of Representatives, and in Washington, means Rubio does have “some experience herding cats.”

Sununu’s parting advice for the presidential candidates stumping in earnest in the snow this weekend? “Recognize this is a state where campaigning is a ‘see me, touch me, feel me’ activity,” he said. “And you’ve got to go out and talk to people face to face.”

Photo credit: Andrew Burton/Getty Images

Molly O’Toole is a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, covering immigration, refugees, and national security. She was FP’s sole 2016 presidential campaign reporter, on the trail from New Hampshire to Nevada. Previously, she covered the politics of national security for Atlantic Media’s Defense One, where she reported from Congress, the White House, the Pentagon, and the State Department. Before that, she was a news editor at the Huffington Post. Molly has also reported on national and international politics for Reuters, the Nation, The Associated Press, and Newsweek International, among others, from Washington, New York, Mexico City, and London. She received her dual master’s degree in journalism and international relations from New York University and her bachelor’s from Cornell University and in 2016 was a grant recipient of the International Women’s Media Foundation. She will always be a Californian. @mollymotoole

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