Tim Cook of Messer Truck Equipment (right) gives New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (center) and Maine Republican nominee for governor, Paul LePage, a tour of his facility in Westbrook on Wednesday, July 13, 2022. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

A version of this article was originally published in The Daily Brief, our Maine politics newsletter. Sign up here for daily news and insight from politics editor Michael Shepherd.

New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu is a skilled political operator.

His state remains only a tick to the right of Democratic-controlled Maine, where Republicans have looked longingly across the border for years at the Granite State as a limited-government utopia in part because of the absence of an income tax.

New Hampshire remains a swing state, but Sununu makes it look easy there. So why does his presidential flirtation seem so uphill? The waning role of old-school New England Republicanism in national politics has something to do with it.

Cutting both ways: Sununu’s approval rating, as measured by Morning Consult, was 59 percent in the last quarter of 2022. With a similar share of votes, he cruised to reelection even as a Democratic senator held her seat. While that was down from his landslide margin two years earlier, it was about as easy as you can have it in a contested state.

The son of a former governor turned White House chief of staff unceremoniously turned down entreaties from Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, to run for that chamber last year, deriding the “gridlock and politics” of Washington in a 2021 speech.

This does not mean that Sununu lacks ambition. He is now kicking the tires on a presidential run, doing frequent TV hits in which he predicts former President Donald Trump will not be the 2024 nominee. He is also prompting pieces from The New York Times and Wall Street Journal mulling whether a Republican who is supportive of basic abortion rights could win the nod.

“Probably not” seems to be the answer. Sununu was rated as his state’s most popular politician in a February poll from the University of New Hampshire. But a month earlier, he was barely registering in presidential polling, sitting at 4 percent and in fourth place. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis led at 42 percent, a spot above Trump at 30 percent.

Defining himself: This has led Sununu to say DeSantis would win New Hampshire and Florida if the primaries were now. Remarks like that do not seem to bode well for a run, but he is still answering questions on going for the White House.

He has downplayed the importance of his personal views on abortion, noting that changes passed under him limit abortions past 24 weeks and that last year’s landmark U.S. Supreme Court decision repealing federal abortion rights leaves the matter to the states.

“Not that it’s not an important issue, but folks are going to really have to define themselves as to where they are,” he told NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Another moderate Republican, former Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan,   declined a run this week. Only Trump and former United Nations Ambassador Nikki Haley are the major Republicans running now. Some others including Sen. Susan Collins, a centrist Trump skeptic, are talking up Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, who is conservative but could appeal to some moderates.

It works here, but: Both Collins and Sununu have shown that moderate Republicans still have currency here. She won a heavily nationalized 2020 campaign in a Maine that is moving to the left. She won in large part due to keeping margins close in the Portland suburbs where arch-conservative former Gov. Paul LePage lost big in 2022.

Collins’ position toward the middle of her chamber makes her a player in national politics, but there are fewer colleagues with her orientation now. She is the last Republican senator in the region now and there are no Republicans from there in the House. In Massachusetts, a Democrat walked into the governor’s mansion last year after Republicans followed up moderate Gov. Charlie Baker with a conservative nominee who had no chance of winning.

Both Collins and Sununu have maintained ties to the rest of the party. For example, both backed LePage in his 2022 run and he dinged Maine’s income tax after a big lottery jackpot was won here. But the unique parts of Sununu’s appeal make his presidential flirtation feel like one of the last rides in national electoral politics for the New England brand of moderate Republicanism.

Want the latest political news? Subscribers of Pocket Politics get breaking news and analysis on their phones before the stories go anywhere else. Text POLITICS to 207-288-7412 to get in. First two weeks are free, $3.99/month after that. Cancel any time. All links to the site are free.

Michael Shepherd

Michael Shepherd joined the Bangor Daily News in 2015 after three years as a reporter at the Kennebec Journal. A Hallowell native who now lives in Augusta, he graduated from the University of Maine in...