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Opinion Chris Sununu knows: It’s no fun being a Republican in the Senate

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) in Manchester, N.H., on June 3. (Elise Amendola/AP)
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Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) got some extremely bad news on Tuesday: New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) announced he would run for reelection rather than try to unseat Sen. Maggie Hassan, widely understood as one of the more vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection in 2022. The reason he gave for his decision tells us something important about Congress and his party:

At a news conference in Concord, N.H., Sununu, 47, said he appreciated those who had reached out but ultimately decided that he could be more “impactful” by staying in his current job rather than going to Washington.
“I like getting stuff done,” Sununu said. “I don’t think they could handle me down there. I’d be like a lion in a cage.”
Sununu said that there was “definitely a period where I was leaning toward running” for the Senate but that he concluded after consulting with others that being a senator “doesn’t fit my style.” He portrayed the Senate as a slow-moving institution rife with partisan politics.

Sununu isn’t the first governor to say something similar, even though governors often get over their reluctance once they’ve been term-limited out of the statehouse. Thirteen current senators served as governor of their states, including Hassan herself.) But Sununu is right — especially right now.

Executive jobs — president, governor, mayor — are profoundly different from legislative jobs, for the basic reason that you have decision-making authority. When President George W. Bush described his job by saying “I’m the decider,” he was absolutely correct. Every day, you have to decide what will happen and how, even if you’re operating under plenty of constraints.

What do senators do? They talk a lot. They go to hearings. Some of them work on legislation. And they cast votes — sometimes on profoundly important bills that affect millions of lives, but a lot of the time on things such as a resolution to declare Nov. 6 to be National Bison Day, a real bill that passed not long ago. (What, you didn’t celebrate it?)

And what, in particular, do Republican senators do, right now? That’s where the real rub is. Because they’re in the opposition, they aren’t really working on legislation very much. Their job as they see it is to make life difficult for President Biden, which, for some, means procedural roadblocks to his nominations and legislation and, for others, means going on Fox News to fulminate about the latest liberal outrage.

Many senators are fine with this. They see standing in the way of liberal advances as a noble goal in and of itself. Though they might not say it out loud, they don’t mind staying in the opposition indefinitely so they have something to fight against.

But even if you’re a Republican who has affirmative policy ideas you’d like to see put into law, you know that won’t happen as long as there’s a Democrat in the White House. Biden will be president for at least another three years, and since most presidents win reelection, chances are good that Republicans won’t have another opportunity to make laws until 2029.

So if you’re Sununu or any other Republican planning a run, you’re looking at the prospect of a six-year term filled with nothing but obstruction and opposition. Depending on what your agenda is, that may not be too appealing.

And even if Republicans reclaim full control of Washington in 2024, the executive branch is going to be where the action is. As we saw when Donald Trump was president, today’s GOP just doesn’t do a lot of legislating beyond cutting taxes. Which means that being a junior senator isn’t going to mean shaping the country to your liking, at least not for a while.

That’s not to say that being a senator isn’t a pretty sweet gig. You go to work every day in an office plastered with your picture. You have dozens of staffers at your beck and call. People treat you like a celebrity (even if sometimes they might yell at you). You get to work on all kinds of issues of national import and receive classified briefings. If you have a particular policy interest — maritime law, relations with China or affordable housing — you can probably get on the committee that oversees it.

But if, like Sununu, you have comfortably high approval ratings and know you’ll probably be reelected as governor, it doesn’t seem like a difficult choice.

His decision significantly reduces the likelihood that Republicans will take back the Senate next fall; while Hassan could still be unseated, Sununu was far and away the strongest contender. There are likely to be seven contested Senate races in next year’s election, four of which are held by Democrats (in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire) and three of which are held by Republicans (North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin). Which is why it’s at least possible that Sununu’s decision could be the difference in who controls the chamber.

That means everything to McConnell, but not as much to that nearly extinct species known as the moderate New England Republican. Instead, Republicans will have to find someone to run for that seat who has no greater aspiration than telling Tucker Carlson how Joe Biden is a communist. I’m sure they’ll find plenty of volunteers.