Chris Sununu vs. Maggie Hassan: A Volcanic Senate Matchup in the Granite State

The 2020 elections are complete. Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump, the Democrats barely held onto the House, and the Senate is evenly split 50-50. Biden’s strength in suburbs nationwide propelled him to a fairly comfortable victory. But in the Northeast, rural areas swung heavily Democratic as well. These political cross-currents meet in New Hampshire, the state that best exemplifies the melding of urban and rural electoral trends in the northeast.

In two years, incumbent Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan will be up for re-election in an unknown political environment with the shadow of incumbent Republican Gov. Chris Sununu looming over the horizon. New Hampshire still has a purple streak as a state, but it is much bluer than it was ten years ago. The Sununu dynasty may be the only thing standing in between the Granite State and this fate. But to understand what could happen in 2022, the results from 2020 must be explained first.

Suburban Swings and Rural Recalibrations

Pictured above is political analyst Sam Q.’s map of the I-93/Route 3 corridor in southern New Hampshire. This corridor is anchored by the cities of Manchester and Concord and is surrounded by a mix of rural and suburban towns of varying incomes. It is towns like these where Republicans would historically rack up their margins. However, nowadays, these towns have mirrored suburban areas nationwide in swinging fairly hard to the Democrats, complicating things for Republicans.

Things aren’t all doom and gloom for Republicans though. More rural, white working-class counties like Sullivan, along the spine of the Connecticut River, used to be prime Democratic territory, but have now become enthralled with Trumpian conservatism. Similar patterns abound in rural towns in Cheshire, Grafton, and Coös counties.

This statewide map from political analyst @mcharr00 of New Hampshire illustrates these two trends perfectly. Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen won by 16 in 2020 against merely three in 2014, but one can see large Democratic gains in the southern part of the state, while she lost ground in more working-class and rural areas in the west and north.

Looking to 2022, these trends are widely expected to continue. Maggie Hassan likely won her first race in 2016 vs. incumbent Republican Senator Kelly Ayotte due to being on the right side of the trends. @norwood270 shows that Hassan managed to hold Ayotte to close margins in the historically Republican southern part of the state while crucially outperforming Hillary Clinton in the Connecticut Valley and in the Great North Woods.

But given that New Hampshire is a notorious swing state, and the fact that Hassan and Sununu are arguably the strongest eligible party nominees, this race is set to be a true tossup. This race cannot be called on fundamentals alone, it will take a full campaign cycle to gather a full account of the results.

Things to Keep in Mind

Sununu did win his gubernatorial election by over 30 points, which reflects similarly on other recently re-elected northeast Republican governors like Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Phil Scott of Vermont. His coattails were large enough to deliver full Republican control of the state. This means the GOP controls everything from the state legislature to the executive council, all the way to the drawing of legislative districts for the next decade.

Maggie Hassan, however, is no pushover. Unseating an incumbent in a small New England state like New Hampshire, where retail politics and personal relationships go a long way, is no easy task. Ask Sara Gideon in Maine how that went. Kelly Ayotte may have been very socially conservative relative to New Hampshire, but she did manage to win with 60% of the vote in 2010 while carrying every county. And when one considers that Hassan shared a ballot with Hillary Clinton, who almost lost the state, and even Chris Sununu, who won an open gubernatorial race, her feat becomes even more impressive given New Hampshire’s strong pro-incumbent streak.

Conclusion

There are too many factors at play here, and too many heterodox voters in a state like New Hampshire to simply say “2022 is a Biden midterm, therefore red wave”, especially when such titanic forces of New Hampshire politics are colliding. New Hampshire, like many New England states, values good government over hard-core ideology, and many of the recent moves from the legislature, such as attempts to gerrymander the state’s four electoral votes by congressional district and limit student voting, fly in the face of this historical precedent. It would be unwise to suggest that this will hurt Republicans. Rather, it does not burnish a good-government image, especially among the increasingly Republican-skeptical southern part of the state.

As a state with a notable pro-incumbent streak, it would be inconsistent and ideologically dishonest to do anything other than apply the same parameters here. Assuming that Chris Sununu does indeed run, based on past precedent, and knowing that a season of campaigning can change the cycle, I would start the New Hampshire Class 3 Senate race of 2022 off as Leans Democratic, with incumbent Maggie Hassan very slightly favored.

Armin Thomas is a recent graduate of Yale University specializing in statistics. His interests include politics, elections, music, and the work of J. R. R. Tolkien. His Twitter is @thomas_armin and he can be reached at [email protected]

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