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Opinion This governor is best positioned to fill the NeverTrump lane

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) in July. (Charles Krupa/AP)
5 min

Let’s face it: The chances of a NeverTrump Republican winning the GOP 2024 nomination are slim to none. The party remains in the grip of MAGA conspiracies, election denial, fake culture wars and performance politics, leaving the most likely alternative to defeated former president Donald Trump to one of his mini-me imitators. However, there is a narrow opening for someone who rejects all that — and one candidate who might meet the bill is New Hampshire’s GOP governor, Chris Sununu.

Neither Liz Cheney nor Adam Kinzinger — both former members of the Jan. 6 committee — is likely to be the solution to what ails the GOP. Such brave and principled figures, who distinguished themselves by standing up to a “clear and present danger” to democracy, are in all likelihood a bridge too far for primary voters, many of whom are still seething with resentment over the two lawmakers who most vividly exposed the cowardice of their fellow Republicans.

The best opportunity, then, for someone who rejects MAGA politics would come from a less controversial figure with a solid record, preferably from an early primary state where he could take the wind out of Trump’s and other MAGA candidates’ sails. In other words, someone such as Sununu, an actual fiscal conservative with a tax-cutting record that pleases his constituency.

Sununu was reelected to a fourth term in November. He has rejected election denial, pushed a school-voucher system instead of a war on mythical critical race theory and adeptly managed GOP expectations without losing the political center. He supported a limited third-trimester abortion ban, but then “convinced the Republican-led Legislature to exempt from the ban fatal fetal anomalies and to eliminate a mandatory ultrasound before an abortion unless a doctor believed the fetus to be at least 24 weeks old,” Yahoo News reported. “Sununu said he would continue to ask lawmakers to tweak the law further, exempting cases of rape and incest and removing a criminal penalty for doctors who violate the ban.”

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Sununu also threatened a veto to knock down a MAGA state bill that would have mandated schools promptly inform parents about developments in their children’s “gender expression or identity.”

At his fourth inaugural address, he boasted that he oversaw a fast vaccine rollout, but also said, “When other states closed down businesses, we kept their lights on — and invested in their success.”

Appearing on CNN’s State of the Union on Sunday, Sununu exhibited poise and humanity in his reaction to the horrifying Tyre Nichols video. “It’s not just training, of course. I mean, what you saw there was beyond a training failure,” he said. Rather than simply repeat the trite mantra about better training, he pointed a finger to a larger culprit: “What is inherent within our system?”

He’s also remarkably skilled at needling Trump in a way that doesn’t make him seem to be taking Democrats’ side. “He comes to New Hampshire, and, frankly, he gives a very mundane speech. The response we have received is, he read his teleprompter, he stuck to the talking points, he went away. So he’s not really bringing that fire, that energy.” (Translation: Sleepy!) At a Gridiron dinner last year, Sununu wisecracked, “I don’t think he’s so crazy he should be in a mental institution, but if he were in one, he ain’t getting out!” (His remarks went viral.)

He shows similar finesse in slapping down Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, infamous for his heavy-handed bullying and race-baiting. “It’s not right to tell a private business what they can or cannot do,” Sununu said. “It is not the New Hampshire way to force locally elected and accountable school districts or town councils to bend to the statehouse’s will.” He added, “That’s not leadership, and it’s not conservative, and it is certainly not freedom.”

Sununu throws a bone to the right, but posits government cannot solve cultural issues. “A lot of conservative, a lot of Americans, independents are frustrated, because they see this woke culture, this woke cancel culture invading our societies and in our communities. And we need to fight.” Still, he argues, “My argument is, the government is not the solution to cultural issues, and we have a cultural problem.”

Sununu also sets himself apart from the angry, apocalyptic tone that pervades the GOP. “I think we have a lot of hope and optimism. ... It’s not just about the negativity that you see in the media and the press and that they have kind of been inundated with. It really is about good government.”

It’s probably too much to hope that Republicans would pick a Trump antagonist, a throwback to New England Republicans of old (socially moderate, fiscally conservative). However, if NeverTrump Republicans are savvy, they’ll quickly decide on a single standard-bearer who might prevail in a divided field. They could do a lot worse than Sununu — and probably will.