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Chris Sununu goes there on Trump

But where does he want ‘there’ to lead?

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) speaks at the annual Hillsborough County Lincoln-Reagan Dinner in June 2021. (Elise Amendola/AP)
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Nobody is playing as interesting a political game in the Republican Party right now as New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R). The looming question is: How committed is he to expanding the game board?

Sununu has, in recent months, inserted himself in the national dialogue by trying to act as a voice of reason in today’s GOP. The latest came this weekend, when at a comedy-themed dinner he said aloud what Politico says “most Republicans in Washington *privately* whisper” about former president Donald Trump: He’s crazy.

Sununu set up his joke at the Gridiron dinner by citing the possibility that Trump would return to the presidency after the 2024 election. He cited the “experience,” “passion” and “sense of integrity” Trump demonstrated in his tweets.

“Nah, I’m just kidding,” Sununu said. “He’s f---ing crazy.”

Sununu added: “The press often will ask me if I think Donald Trump is crazy. And I’ll say it this way: I don’t think he’s so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.”

As one might expect, Sununu on Monday morning sought the plausible deniability that comes with delivering such remarks at a roast-style event.

I don’t think he’s crazy,” Sununu said, according to the New Hampshire Journal. “It’s all a joke.”

Perhaps! But many a true word is said in jest. And Sununu had to know how such a joke would be received in a party still so thoroughly dominated by Trump. Even in his remarks to the Gridiron dinner, he joked, “I’m going to deny I ever said it.”

(Sununu also took aim at Trump’s business ventures, saying Mike Lindell’s MyPillow is “crap” and, “You only find that kind of stuff in the Trump hotel” — another joke likely to stick in the former president’s craw.)

It’s also merely the latest in a long line of comments in which Sununu has differed with not just Trump, but the broader GOP.

Sununu broke that GOP’s heart late last year when he declined to run for Senate in New Hampshire, blaming the national GOP for its lack of ambition and contentedness with simply blocking President Biden’s agenda. He said he had been “pretty close” to running but declined after consulting with GOP senators about the party’s plans.

“It bothered me that they were okay with that,” Sununu said.

The comment was particularly biting given that Republicans have indeed declined to articulate a 2022 agenda, and here was a big-name Republican confirming that the party doesn’t really have any ideas. Biden later cited Sununu’s comments while arguing that Republicans have no idea what they are for.

Sununu also derided the national GOP in late 2021 for its handling of various internal matters: the removal of Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from GOP leadership, the lack of censure for Rep. Paul A. Gosar (R-Ariz.) after he posted an anime video featuring him killing Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), and the targeting of 13 House Republicans who provided the decisive votes to pass Biden’s bipartisan infrastructure bill.

“I think it says that we have our priorities wrong,” Sununu said. He said that while Gosar deserved censure, the party was eating its own by going after Cheney and members who voted the wrong way.

When, earlier this year, various Republican senators and conservative commentators criticized Biden’s promise to appoint a Black woman to the Supreme Court as “affirmative action” or a “quota,” Sununu was one of the few to directly rebuke that line of argument.

“I don’t see things as quotas like that, no,” he said, adding: “You want folks with a diverse set of backgrounds, of course. So in that sense, no, I wouldn’t agree it’s a quota.”

And most recently, Sununu hamstrung the GOP’s efforts to add a winnable congressional seat in New Hampshire, which has been trending blue at the federal level. He said he would veto a map that would’ve transferred 25 percent of the state’s population between the state’s two districts: “It doesn’t really pass the smell test, right?

What’s interesting about what transpired this weekend is that Sununu took aim at Trump. He’s differed with Trump occasionally — including on potential pardons for Jan. 6 defendants and Trump’s bogus claims of widespread voter fraud — but generally his comments have focused on how the broader GOP has conducted itself. That’s a less fraught pursuit, and possibly a more advantageous one for a guy running for reelection as governor in a bluish-purple state.

Taking on Trump — even jokingly — carries all kinds of consequences. And Sununu is familiar with them. For a few months, former Trump campaign manager and New Hampshire politics veteran Corey Lewandowski has been talking about running a primary challenger against Sununu. And Lewandowski re-upped that possibility this weekend, saying that “if the right Republican were to run against him, I’d be willing to bet Donald Trump would endorse [Sununu’s] opponent.”

It seems unlikely that Sununu will face a serious primary, given that it’s only five months away, he’s pretty popular (including in the GOP), and no serious challengers have stepped forward. (They’d have until June 10.) But Sununu had to know he was tempting fate. And his comments Monday suggest he’d rather not have these particular comments blow up too much.

Therein lies that difficult dance so many have attempted during the Trump era. They’d like you to know that they’re not really on board with the former president and that maybe it’s time for the party to shift toward steadier and more principled leadership. But they’d also prefer not to have Trump supporters think they’re Never Trumpers.

Even those who have tried some halfway version of that dance — see, for example, former senators Bob Corker (R-Tenn.), Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) — have found themselves so marginalized that in many cases they’ve been cast out or forced into retirement. Perhaps that’s gradually changing, with Trump now out of office. And it’s somewhat easier if you’re a governor who doesn’t have to constantly contend with the national spotlight.

Sununu presents a potentially significant case study in that he’s not a governor of a true-blue state — such as Maryland’s Larry Hogan or Massachusetts’s Charlie Baker — and he could have a future in the national party, including a potential run for president. He’s also pointing to the broader ways that his party has lost its bearings — a problem that goes well beyond Trump himself — which, taken together, could add up to a pretty coherent campaign message.

We’ll see just how committed he is to his critique of the party. Regardless of the intent behind his remarks this weekend, if he wasn’t on people’s radars before, he probably should be now.