How We win in 2020

Or, "Why is Chris Sununu the 3rd-Most Popular Governor in the Country?"

May 3, 2019 - This morning, Governor Chris Sununu vetoed a bill repealing the death penalty - despite a bipartisan supermajority voting for repeal in both the House and Senate and despite the fact that a majority of New Hampshirites support repeal.

Fortunately, it is a virtual certainty that the legislature will override Sununu's veto, and New Hampshire will soon no longer be the only state in New England with the death penalty. 

But as Governor Sununu proudly announces his veto today, it is a good time to ask: Why is a governor who is out-of-step with the views of the majority of New Hampshirites so often, so proudly, and so blatantly currently at 64% approval in the latest Morning Consult poll of America's governors? That makes Sununu the 3rd-most popular governor in America, according to this poll. In fact, the top 10 most popular governors in America are all Republicans - and in all but Sununu's case, there is a simple explanation.  In six cases, the governor is a Trump-loving Republican in a Trump-loving state (such as Alabama, Arkansas, and North Dakota). In three cases, the governor is a Trump-hating Republican in a Trump-hating state (Massachusetts, Vermont, and Maryland).

And then there is Chris Sununu. 

He loves Donald Trump. Sununu campaigned with him down the stretch in 2016, even after the Access Hollywood tapes came out. He reiterated his support for Trump in 2018, and repeated Trump's claims of busloads of fraudulent voters coming up from Massachusetts to illegally vote. Sununu praised Trump's high-income tax cut, and his attempted repeal of the Affordable Care Act - in fact, Sununu visited the Trump White House during the last two years more than any governor in America. Trump's approval rating in New Hampshire regularly struggles to break 40%.

And yet, Chris Sununu is at 64% approval.

The legislature is poised to pass the legalization of cannabis with bipartisan support. I've long supported legalization, and almost 70% of New Hampshirites support legalization. Every state around us has legalized cannabis. But Chris Sununu is adamantly opposed to legalization, and has vowed to veto the bill when it hits his desk. He is in the distinct minority on this issue.

And yet, Chris Sununu is at 64% approval.

The legislature is about to pass a plan for Paid Family and Medical Leave and send it to Sununu's desk. Over 60% of New Hampshirites support it, and the plan to fund it - basically a payroll tax - is the only type of such plan that has ever been sustainable in the other states that have PFML. Sununu's counterproposal has been widely determined to be unsustainable - the math doesn't work. And Sununu has said he will definitely veto the PFML bill about to hit his desk.

And yet, Chris Sununu is at 64% approval.

On guns, Sununu has voiced hesitation or outright opposition to virtually all gun safety measures poised to reach his desk. A waiting period. A red flag law. Universal background checks. Allowing local governments to enact gun-free school zones. All of these are supported by between 55% and 85% of New Hampshirites...and Chris Sununu opposes all of them.

And yet, Chris Sununu is at 64% approval.

He opposes campaign finance reform...and freezing corporate tax cuts to provide local property tax relief....and the creation of an independent redistricting commission. He says he's pro-choice, but even as Republican governors around the country are beginning to sign laws codifying the right for women to terminate a pregnancy (in case Roe v Wade is overturned), he will not support such an effort. 

He supports Northern Pass...which virtually everybody north of Concord opposes. He supports Granite Bridge pipeline...which almost everybody east of Manchester opposes. He signed into law multiple bills making it harder for young people to vote. And on the subject of education funding, when confronted with the problem that state government is legally required to fund an adequate education, but currently funds less than 30% of the cost of education, his response is...a constitutional amendment to eliminate the state's responsibility. As if that will help the kid in Berlin or Claremont.

And yet, Chris Sununu is at 64% approval.


And this is where we need to get very real. In 2016 and 2018, we Democrats came as close to running the table as possible. Hillary Clinton beat Donald Trump in 2016. Democrats won every congressional and senate race in those years. We took the State Senate, State House, and Executive Council back in 2018. We won a ton of county races. We won seats we haven't won since FDR was president, literally. And despite winning everything around the governor's race in 2016 and 2018, we lost the governor's race both times.

We didn't lose to Chris Sununu both times because he had better or more popular ideas than the Democratic nominee. It wasn't money, either. He's not a prolific fundraiser, nor is he considered an especially strong or vigorous campaigner. He won because we never got to the place where ideas, policies, vision, or specifics ever entered the debate. He won because we don't get to have those debates until we contrast Sununu with a candidate who can match and exceed his greatest strength - his perceived affability and high level of youthful, optimistic energy. 

In 2020, we will need a face of the party at the state level who projects great energy and optimism; who believes that the way to win is not by avoiding the spotlight, but by getting on the stage next to Sununu as often as possible; not by blurring differences, but by maximizing and highlighting differences; not by using language and tactics from a generation ago, but by being the candidate and party of the next generation. 

It feels great when we, as Democrats, enjoy a legislative victory in the House or Senate - but unless we have a governor who will both sign it into law and will spend political capital to shape the statewide discussion, it is more motion than movement.

It feels good when we talk about litigation we've pursued to correct education funding, or our weakened mental health system - but that is because we do not have a governor who is willing to do the difficult, but necessary, work of defining the future, and then making it so.

We won't defeat Chris Sununu in 2020 with a legislator or a litigator. It's going to take a leader. If we think the way to win is by playing between the goalposts set by Ronald Reagan and Mel Thomson almost 50 years ago, then we risk - for the third time - losing a governors race surrounded by Democratic victories above and below it on the ballot.

But if we select a Democrat who vigorously moves the goalposts - on education funding, and guns, and energy, and reproductive rights, and health care, and good government reform, and higher education - we will complete the sweep. And in so doing, we will play a leading role in defining the future of our party, our state, and in our small way, our country.

Chris Sununu may be at 64% approval right now, but if we nominate an energetic messenger with a bold message the next time around, I am 100% sure that we'll get at least 51% of the vote in November of 2020.