As Republicans pivot to general election, Sununu makes plea: Stick to the economy

Gov. Chris Sununu addresses fellow Republicans at a unity breakfast following the 2022 primary, Sept. 15, 2022. Photo/Ethan DeWitt, New Hampshire Bulletin

Story Produced by

CONCORD, NH – It was the bear hug that buried the hatchet.

Moments after Gen. Don Bolduc’s speech urging unity among Republicans he leapt off the state and beelined to a surprised Gov. Chris Sununu who engulfed him in an embrace, just weeks after the two had descended to name calling.

Thursday morning’s Republican Unity Breakfast saw rivals in hard-fought primary campaigns join forces, shaking hands, taking selfies and making speeches that indicated they’re ready to put divisions on policy behind. Hundreds of candidates, supporters and family members huddled around tables at the Grappone Center in Concord, cheering loudly for the nominees.

But as Republicans sought unity around the goal of ousting New Hampshire’s Democratic members of Congress, some also issued warnings to the candidates moving forward over which issues to focus on, which to avoid and how to reach voters who distrust elections.

In a speech to attendees, Sununu had a clear message: Stick to the economy.

“We have to listen to what those voters are feeling today,” Sununu said. “‘It’s about the economy, stupid.’ I think that was a famous line by someone. It’s about inflation. It’s about gas. Electricity. It’s about these things that are hitting absolutely everyone.”

It was a standard statement from a governor who has made economic issues central in his pitch to voters during the past three elections, and has often avoided making public statements around abortion. But it came as Republicans nationally have turned social issues such as critical race theory and LGBTQ rights into electoral battlegrounds. And it also came as New Hampshire Democrats aim to make the overturning of Roe v. Wade – and a proposed federal abortion ban – a key issue heading into the fall.

“Here’s the test if you will,” Sununu said. “The real discipline test, right? Like I said, it’s not about candidates. It’s about what we are going to talk about.”

“The discipline,” Sununu continued, “is to not get distracted by what the Democrats want to talk about. …They’re talking about the social issues and all this, and all this, and that’s fine. But at the end of the day, that’s not what is going to drive the vote home.”

On Wednesday, a day after the primary, Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan released a campaign ad attacking Bolduc, her Republican opponent, for supporting the June Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision, in which the Supreme Court overturned abortion rights laid out in Roe v. Wade.

“Don Bolduc and anti-choice Republicans say we should ‘rejoice’ at the ruling denying women access to abortion,” the ad reads.

A self-described “pro-life” candidate, Bolduc had praised the decision, which overturned the constitutional right while allowing states to set their own abortion laws. In a media call Wednesday and a planned press event in Concord Friday, Hassan has also asserted that Bolduc “would be a yes vote for a nationwide abortion ban.”

Hassan’s campaign has pointed to past statements in which Bolduc said that he was “unapologetically pro-life” and that he was “not going to vote contrary to pro-life,” arguing that the candidate has already made strong indications in the past.

Bolduc pushed back on that claim Tuesday night, telling an ABC reporter that he was “not going to look at it favorably” when asked about a proposal by South Carolina Sen. Lindsay Graham to pass a 15-week federal abortion ban. “The Supreme Court has already said it’s a state issue, so let it be a state issue,” Bolduc told ABC. A spokesperson for Bolduc did not respond to a request for comment Thursday.

Hassan’s ad – and a similar one by Rep. Chris Pappas against Leavitt – indicate that Democrats are going to focus on opposing the anti-abortion views of Republican nominees.

Leavitt pushed back at Pappas’s ad Thursday, arguing she had consistently opposed federal abortion laws in favor of passing more stringent abortion bans at the state level.

Sununu urged Republicans to veer away.

“We have to unify around the issues that matter,” he said. “And it is really easy to get distracted with this and there’s ten-thousand issues we could talk about, right? But we have to talk about not what the party wants, not even what the candidate wants to talk about,” but what voters want, he said.

Sununu wasn’t the only one giving warnings Thursday. In his speech, Bob Burns urged Republicans to work on getting voter turnout for November, and said trust in elections could pose a hurdle.

“You need to find those Republicans who don’t show up, who sit around complaining, talking about talk radio, talking about how their vote isn’t counted, talking about how the election was stolen, and you need to say ‘Get out there. What is it going to cost you? Five minutes. 10 minutes,’” Burns said.

Burns noted he has long been involved in politics in New Hampshire, working on presidential campaigns ranging from Mike Huckabee to Newt Gingrich to Donald Trump, and has won elections for local positions, including Hillsborough county treasurer.

“And this made me realize one thing, when I used to look at the math of the down ticket and the upper ticket: Republicans have a tendency to skip votes more than Democrats,” Burns said.

The comments underscore a potential problem for Republican candidates in the general election, after years of rhetoric from former President Donald Trump casting doubt on elections.

A June 28 poll from the University of New Hampshire found that 28 percent of New Hampshire Republicans and 17 percent of independents are either “not very confident” or “not confident at all” that their vote was accurately counted in 2020. The poll also found that 32 percent of Republicans and 22 percent of independents were “not very confident” or “not confident at all” that their vote would be accurately counted in 2022.

And 39 percent of Republicans believe that voter fraud is a “very” or “somewhat” serious problem in the state, the poll found.

Secretaries of state and election monitors have consistently found the 2020 elections to be fairly conducted.

Leavitt herself has publicly declared that she rejects the results of the 2020 presidential election, stating the position clearly in a debate in the final days before Tuesday’s primary.

Bolduc has declared the election fraudulent, but reversed course in comments this week.

Stopping that distrust from keeping Republicans from the polls will be a key objective, Burns told the crowd of Republicans. He invoked former Gov. John H. Sununu, who he said helped drive a Republican wave in New Hampshire in 2010 by emphasizing engagement. “What he said is ‘talk, talk, talk’; what he said is ‘Go out and tell 10 people that they need to show up to vote.’”

A spokesperson for Leavitt declined to comment on Burns’ concerns or Leavitt’s past comments Thursday, referring to Leavitt’s own speech Thursday morning instead.

Leavitt did not mention the 2020 election in her speech to the party, projecting a more positive tone. But she did touch on social issues, such as immigration and critical race theory.

“Right now, in Washington, the Democrats may have the power, but we have the policy,” she said. “More money in the pockets of the people here on the Granite State, strong borders, law and order, respecting our men and women in blue, election integrity and an education system that puts our kids first and teaches them reading, writing and math, not (critical race theory).”

Bolduc also kept his pitch to the party broad.

“People are concerned about our democracy, about our constitutional republic, about self-governance, about the very existence of this nation, about its abandonment of its values and principles,” Bolduc said. “Life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, a ‘don’t tread on me attitude’ that made this country great. That transcends everything.”

This story was republished with permission under NH Bulletin’s Creative Commons License.