The biggest NH campaign questions of 2022

The biggest NH campaign questions of 2022

The biggest political moment in New Hampshire in 2021 set the stage for campaign drama in 2022.

After nearly a year of anticipation, Republican Gov. Chris Sununu instantly made headlines not only in the Granite State but also across the country by announcing in early November that he would run for a fourth term as governor in 2022.

Sununu’s decision to seek another two-year term steering the state rather than challenge Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan – his predecessor as governor – instantly impacted New Hampshire’s political landscape heading into the new year, including elections for governor and U.S. senator.

The governor’s announcement immediately took what would have been one of the most expensive, competitive, and consequential Senate races in the 2022 midterm elections and moved it, at least temporarily, from the A-list to the B-list. Sununu’s decision also transformed what would have likely been a wide-open gubernatorial showdown with contested primaries for both major parties into – for now – a much sleepier campaign.

Let’s start with the Senate race.

Senate Republicans need a net gain of just one seat in the 2022 midterms to win back the majority in the chamber that they lost a year ago, when they were swept in the Jan. 5, 2021, twin runoff elections in Georgia. While the GOP’s defending 20 of the 34 seats up for grabs in 2022, including five open seats, they view four Democratic senators in extremely competitive general election battleground states as vulnerable. And thanks to her lackluster polling position throughout most of 2021, Hassan was one of the four.

While the final University of New Hampshire survey of 2021 gave the senator some good news, Hassan and her party face historical headwinds in the 2022 elections, since the party that controls the White House traditionally suffers setbacks in the ensuing midterms. To make matters worse, Democrats across the country will have a deal with an unfavorable political environment that’s compounded by President Joe Biden’s underwater approval ratings.

Hassan, as a first-term governor in 2014, won reelection during another cycle that was horrendous for Democrats, and she came out on top in a blockbuster battle with then-Sen. Kelly Ayotte in 2016. Can the senator survive what may become a third straight challenging election?

Veteran New Hampshire-based political scientist Dante Scala said a big question in the new year is whether “Hassan has another gear politically.”

“Maybe there will be a big rebound for President Joe Biden, but if he doesn’t bounce back politically, will Hassan be able to set herself apart from the president?” asked Scala, a professor of political science at the University of New Hampshire.

While some top Republican strategists in Washington called the decision by Sununu – their top recruiting prospect – “a huge disappointment,” the National Republican Senatorial Committee still views Hassan as vulnerable next year against the right candidate.

That candidate won’t be Ayotte, who was defeated by Hassan by a razor-thin margin of just over 1,000 votes in 2016. Nor will it likely be former GOP Sen. Scott Brown of Massachusetts, who moved to New Hampshire and came close to defeating Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen in 2014.

There’s only one Republican who’s a declared candidate in the Senate race. Retired Gen. Don Bolduc, who unsuccessfully ran for the 2020 GOP Senate nomination, launched his campaign in November of 2020.

In the nearly two months since Sununu’s announcement, there’s been plenty of speculation – but no announcements – of which other Republicans would launch bids. New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse, Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith, and investment and media executive and 2010 Senate candidate Bill Binnie have all confirmed they’re seriously considering runs. State education commission and former gubernatorial candidate Frank Edelblut is also mulling a Senate campaign.

“If it’s a low barrier to entry and if Hassan continues to look vulnerable, why wouldn’t there be several candidates,” Scala noted. “Unless the political environment improves for Democrats, it may not take an A candidate to beat Hassan.”

In the 2022 gubernatorial race, while an open seat would have potentially attracted a wide-open and crowded field of Democrats, the number of possible candidates hoping to take on Sununu dropped considerably.

A handful of Democratic strategists pointed to state Sen. Tom Sherman as their party’s most likely gubernatorial nominee next year.

“The sooner the better but I can’t rush the process,” Sherman told the Monitor last month when asked about his timetable for deciding on a run for governor.

“I’m going keep doing all my hard work in the meantime, both legislating and fundraising, and continue to have discussions that I need to have before I make a final decision,” the gastroenterologist from Rye and ranking member and former chair of the state Senate Health and Human Services Committee added.

Sununu’s flagging approval ratings in the polls give Democrats hope for 2022. The governor’s once sky-high numbers have come down from the stratosphere. He stood at 56% approval in the Saint Anselm College Survey Center’s October poll and 52% in the University of New Hampshire Survey Center’s December poll.

While Sununu’s poll numbers are moving in the wrong direction, Scala noted that “the national political environment has to improve for Democrats to give someone like Sherman a good shot.”

Another question surrounding Sununu’s 2022 reelection focuses on the combustible issue of abortion.

New Hampshire Democrats are following through on their vow to make the governor pay a political price for signing a state budget – one that Republicans showcased as the most conservative in decades – that includes a ban on abortions after 24 weeks of gestation and mandatory ultrasounds for all women before a pregnancy is terminated. They’re also taking aim at Sununu for the GOP-dominated Executive Council’s votes to deny family planning funding for abortion providers.

Looking ahead to November, will abortion be a major issue in the 2022 elections?

That’s yet to be determined, with the nation waiting for a likely late June ruling by the Supreme Court of the United States that could potentially weaken abortion rights.

“It’s an issue that galvanizes the Democratic base, especially women with a college degree,” Scala said. “The question becomes once you get beyond them, will it become an issue for persuadables, will it move independents?”

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