MANCHESTER, N.H. — New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) has endorsed Nikki Haley for president, promising an animated audience that the former U.N. ambassador is the best alternative to former president Donald Trump in the first GOP primary state.
At a town hall event Tuesday night, Sununu, a critic of Trump and a popular governor in a purple state, said the country cannot stay in the past and made a case for the party to move on from Trump and support Haley, who he said has brought a new energy to the campaign trail.
“It is unbelievable to see her out there, to see her connecting with folks, to feel that momentum,” Sununu said. “It is real. It is tangible.”
Sununu has been campaigning for a handful of Republican candidates in the primary field. He has indicated that he was looking to endorse one of the governors in the race — Haley, the former governor of South Carolina; Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis; or former New Jersey governor Chris Christie.
But the poll also suggested a Sununu endorsement could have a somewhat limited impact on the presidential race. Fourteen percent of likely Republican primary voters said they would be more likely to vote for a presidential candidate endorsed by Sununu, 80 percent said it would make no difference and 5 percent said they would be less likely to vote for a Sununu-backed candidate.
“It doesn’t change anything for me, but I’m happy for her,” said New Hampshire voter Tom McGrath who attended Tuesday night’s event. McGrath, who lives in nearby Merrimack, said he is leaning toward Haley because of her foreign policy experience. McGrath said he also likes DeSantis, but he has ruled out Christie because he has felt like the former governor has been too critical of Trump and other Republicans.
Christie spokesman Karl Rickett said the Sununu endorsement wouldn’t compare to Christie’s efforts to persuade voters.
“This puts us down one vote in New Hampshire and when Governor Christie is back in Londonderry tomorrow, he’ll continue to tell the unvarnished truth about Donald Trump and earn that one missing vote and thousands more,” Rickett said.
Meanwhile, a Christie campaign adviser who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations expressed confusion over Sununu’s decision to back Haley when she has said she would consider pardoning Trump and offered a less critical voice on the former president than Christie has.
“I guess that’s just politics,” the adviser said.
Sununu is broadly popular among Republicans in his state. A Washington Post-Monmouth University poll last month found that 81 percent of likely Republican primary voters in New Hampshire approve of the job he is doing as governor.
At a town hall in New Hampshire last month, while kicking off a question-and-answer session, Haley placed her hand on Sununu’s back and asked, “Are you ready to endorse me yet?”
As attendees turned from their breakfasts to watch, clapping at Haley’s question, Sununu grabbed the mic: “Getting closer every day.”
Sununu emphasized at the same event how frequently Haley visits the state and praised her as “leading the charge” in the effort to have a winning candidate on the ballot next November instead of Trump. He also said she is at a “more than solid second place here in New Hampshire.”
In an interview with The Washington Post after the event, Sununu said Haley “hits all the right points.”
“There’s really no other candidate out there right now that understands the details operationally of not just how to talk about a policy, but a strategy of how to achieve it. And that connects with folks here. So she’s connected with folks all across New Hampshire,” Sununu said. “We’ll see about the whole endorsement thing down the road.”
Sununu said in July that he would not be seeking a fifth term as governor. He had been seen as a potential 2024 candidate, but he announced in June that he would not enter the crowded 2024 Republican presidential field.
Writing in The Post about his decision not to run for the GOP nomination, Sununu argued that helping to achieve the primary defeat of Trump was more important than joining the race.
Sununu had also been mentioned as a possibility for a third-party presidential run.
He told reporters at a Haley event this month, “The endorsement itself matters a little bit — the emphasis, the energy you put behind it, the campaign, the messaging — that’s really what matters and what’s going to get people galvanized.” He also said that if he were to endorse a candidate, he would “help them put together a campaign, a ground game.”
Sununu specifically mentioned helping his selected candidate target independent voters in the state, a group that may play a larger-than-usual role in the primary and that has expressed openness to backing Haley.
While Haley has risen in the polls in recent months, especially in New Hampshire, following well-perceived debate performances, some have raised questions about her team’s ground game and footprint in the early states.
During his endorsement speech, Sununu praised her field operation in the Granite State. He has promised to help whomever he nominated with that, which could prove advantageous to Haley, especially when combined with last month’s endorsement by Americans for Prosperity Action, the Koch network’s flagship political group. It said it would deploy its “unmatched grassroots army” to support Haley.
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds (R), who leads the state with the first GOP presidential caucuses in the country, has also endorsed a candidate besides Trump for the Republican nomination. She threw her support behind DeSantis last month, leading Trump to lash out at her and say it would end her career.
With five weeks to go until the Iowa caucuses, it appears that Reynolds’s endorsement has not swayed a significant portion of GOP voters in the state away from Trump.
An NBC News-Des Moines Register-Mediacom Iowa poll released Monday showed DeSantis drawing no closer to Trump in Iowa, where the former president holds a commanding lead that has only grown since October.