Sununu jumps into Free Staters-Gunstock issue ahead of 2022 NH election
CONCORD — As a former ski resort executive, New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu knows a thing or two about navigating slippery slopes. But a recent controversy at a county-owned ski area has raised questions about his sway over the Republican Party ahead of the November election.
Sununu, who is seeking his fourth term, has recently inserted himself into a power struggle over Gunstock Mountain Resort, siding with staff who resigned en masse and forced a two-week closure last month. Pushing back against anti-government activists who want to privatize the ski area, Sununu also called for the ousting this fall of three Republican lawmakers with oversight roles at the resort.
“These people made bad decisions, and until they are removed from their jobs and replaced by good people who recognize the wonderful asset that is Gunstock, the county will continue to suffer,” he said. written in an open letter to the people of the region.
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Sununu’s intervention was seen by many as a rebuke to the Free State Project, a 20-year-old political experiment that promotes a mass migration of 20,000 libertarians to New Hampshire. Less than 6,500 have arrived so far, but they have made inroads everywhere from school boards to the Legislative Assembly. What this means for Sununu, the Republican Party and the state as a whole is uncertain. But the so-called Free Staters are clearly making things happen.
“In my opinion, the governor is barely hanging on to his party in the lower house, and some of the crazy things they’ve tried to pull off have damaged his reputation in the state,” said Linda Fowler, professor government at Dartmouth College.
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In 2003, Fowler dismissed the project as a gimmick, saying it was unlikely even 20,000 people could have a significant impact. But it also didn’t predict the election of Donald Trump as president in 2016 or the coronavirus pandemic.
“I think both have contributed to the fact that the Free Staters are now a negative influence on state policy and their behavior has become an electoral issue,” she said.
What is the Free State Project?
Conceived by a Yale graduate student in 2001, the Free State Project chose New Hampshire – with its low taxes, easy entry into politics and its “Live Free or Die” motto – as its destination two years later. In 2016, 20,000 people promised to pack their bags within five years. That didn’t happen, and the group’s former chairman now says the pledge model fell through.
But it didn’t take a lot of people to get results.
About 45 Free Staters have been elected to the legislature since 2008; more than 20 are now serving. While that’s a small fraction of the 424-member legislature, it’s enough to sway policy given the GOP’s slim majority in the House.
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The group counts the House Majority Leader as one of its own, and members often team up with dozens of other lawmakers who make up the broader ‘freedom caucus’, securing victories on related legislation school choice, vaccines, and limiting the power of the governor in an emergency.
A stronghold of the Free State is Belknap County, which has the Gunstock Ski Area. After months of tension, top leaders abruptly resigned last month, then returned after two commissioners were ousted. Sununu’s letter targeted both the commission members and three of the Republican lawmakers who appointed them, saying they had lost the public’s trust.
The governor later described their management of the ski area as “just the latest episode in their madness”, noting that one of the three – Representative Michael Sylvia – supports New Hampshire’s secession from the United States. But Sununu said he does not consider them representatives of the Free State movement or the Republican Party.
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“I have no problem with the Free Staters,” he said. “They are not Free Staters.”
Sununu also dismissed the idea that the rise of the Free State movement poses a long-term problem for his political career or his party, saying voters would reject the most extreme candidates.
“Voters are very smart,” he said. “When they see that kind of extremism, they tend to push it on both the Republican side and the Democratic side.”
Why Governor Chris Sununu’s statement on Gunstock matters
Sununu’s involvement in the Gunstock dispute could mark a turning point, said political consultant Scott Spradling.
“There was, I think, a fine line between the Republicans and the Free Staters. Now there is a battle line,” he said. “Gunstock could very well be a high watermark, putting warning lights around the Free State movement for New Hampshire voters who will now attach their identity to this controversy.”
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Either side could make the other’s life politically miserable, Spradling said. But Sununu has credibility and popularity on his side.
“Long term, I would put my money on the establishment on the right, Sununu side of the aisle, because his politics appeal to a much wider audience,” Spradling said.
Upcoming primary elections in New Hampshire
Sununu, who surprised political observers by seeking re-election instead of running for the US Senate, faces five largely unknown opponents in the September 13 primary, and polls show him with a large lead over the Democratic nominee. , State Sen. Tom Sherman. Even Representative Norm Silber, one of the lawmakers Sununu wants to oust, expects Sununu to be re-elected and will vote for him again if he is the nominee. But he argues that it was Sununu who walked away from the GOP.
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“Running as a Republican with a long family history of supporting the Republican Party, I thought for sure he would be a true Republican,” Silber said. “And he, in my view, pandered to non-Republicans in an effort to build a base of support.”
Silber has said he is not a Free Stater, but is being appealed by Democrats who hope to flip the seats in November by painting all Republicans with a Free State brush. The ski area controversy spurred the creation of a political action committee to support bipartisan candidates to defeat the “extremist Free State agenda” in Belknap County.
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“People on the left, or people who don’t like fiscally conservative Republicans, tend to label people they don’t like Free Staters,” he said.
Carla Gericke, former president of the Free State Project, agreed.
“When there’s something positive, people applaud it, but on the other hand, we’ve also become the boogeyman whenever it’s convenient,” she said. “We’re at the stage where we’re successful enough that we’re just used as a pawn between the two sides. And we’re just doing our own thing.”