WARREN — Come along for a leisurely drive on the winding, remote backwoods byways of American conservatism.

Let's start in Lebanon, where Norris Cotton worked as a lawyer before being elected to the U.S. House (1947-1954) and the Senate (1954-1974, 1975). He described himself as "rock-ribbed conservative and proud of it."

Drive north a while on Route 10, turn onto the country road known grandly as the Governor Meldrim Thomson Scenic Highway and pause at Mount Cube, where within living memory Mr. Thomson, who governed this state from 1973 to 1979, would serve you a plate of pancakes slathered in his own maple syrup. Mr. Thomson, who wanted to outfit the state National Guard with nuclear weapons, warned conservatives about "those who wish to completely socialize America."

Carry on a bit, climbing into the forest toward Warren, where as a college student Sherman Adams (governor, 1949-1953) explored the hills, finding inspiration to become a modest lumber baron. As Dwight Eisenhower's chief of staff, he was known as the man who said "no" when the White House was approached with some damn-fool idea.

Where this road leads is to the current day, when Republican Gov. Chris Sununu has approval ratings over 50%. He's one of the most popular state chief executives in the country. He's the second member of his family to capture the governor's chair under the gold dome of the state Capitol and is the third to win a statewide election. He's a credible candidate for president or an attractive figure for the vice presidency. His family is close to the Bushes.

So naturally Mr. Sununu, whose conservative bona fides would be unassailable in any other era, is being challenged from the right.

And before he has to run against a Democrat in the fall, he will have to run against Donald Trump in late summer.

Not literally against Mr. Trump, of course. The former president isn't on the Republican primary ballot Sept. 13, but some of his supporters are. They've caused a ruckus before and are determined to do so again.

Their prospects against an establishment Republican whose family has won eight times in statewide contests are about as great as the chance that New Hampshire will enact a broad-based tax anytime soon. Both Sununus who occupied the governor's office on the second floor of the Capitol — the father, John H. Sununu, who served from 1983 to 1989, and the son, who has been governor since 2017 — foreswore an income or sales taxes in a state that prides itself on having neither.

Even so, the campaign for one of the challengers, Thad Riley, bellows in an email that "Thad's vision for New Hampshire is precisely like President Trump's!" Mr. Riley is a former member of the school board in Brentwood, (population not quite 5,000) in the southeastern corner of the state. One of the other primary challengers is former State Rep. Karen Testerman, who has run for governor before and who has argued that Mr. Trump did not lose New Hampshire, where official final results showed him trailing Joe Biden by 59,277 votes, or 7.4 percentage points, the largest margin of any battleground state.

"There is a 'Disgruntlement Caucus' in the state Republican Party who feels Sununu is too close to the center or too willing to work with Democrats or sometimes describes himself as pro-choice," says Christopher Galdieri, a political scientist at Saint Anselm College in Manchester and author of "Donald Trump and New Hampshire Politics." "But it's also part of a national effort to elect candidates who are on board with Trump."

Mr. Trump has made no endorsements and perhaps will not; New Hampshire's traditional place as the venue for the first presidential primary may persuade him to make no unnecessary foes in a state that could play a role in a third presidential campaign.

But make no mistake: Mr. Trump is no fan of Mr. Sununu; in part because of Mr. Sununu's family's ties to establishment figures such as the Bush family and in part because of what Mr. Sununu said at this spring's Gridiron Club dinner, itself the very definition of an establishment forum:

"The press often will ask me if I think Donald Trump is crazy. And I'll say it this way: I don't think he's so crazy that you could put him in a mental institution. But I think if he were in one, he ain't getting out!"

And yet the themes that have animated Trump supporters nationally are in the air here. Mr. Riley wants a state education oversight board allowing parents to complain in biweekly sessions about the lessons their children are being taught in public schools — an echo of what Glenn Youngkin used in his successful 2020 gubernatorial campaign in Virginia.

Meanwhile, Ms. Testerman charges the governor's policies on the coronavirus "brought about the destruction of small businesses and hurt our families" — an echo of the approach that State Sen. Doug Mastriano used in his successful campaign for the GOP gubernatorial nomination in Pennsylvania last month. Indeed, Ms. Testerman's website argues, "We must decide whether we are a free state," a statement itself with echoes of Mr. Mastriano's plea for Pennsylvanians to "walk as free people." It will not go unnoticed that one of her slogans is "Together We Can Make New Hampshire Great Again."

These challengers have a steep uphill fight to defeat Mr. Sununu, who is well-funded and is an accomplished campaigner. "With more than one fringe candidate out there running against Sununu," says Andrew Smith, director of the University of New Hampshire Survey Center, "consolidating the pro-Trump, anti-Sununu sentiment will be difficult."

The road from Lebanon, where Norris Cotton was buried in 1989, to Warren, where he was born in 1900, leads us to Mount Mousilauke, known for its vista stretching to the far horizon. The other day the view was aptly obscured in haze, for so too is the future of American conservatism, here in a place and an age Norris Cotton, Meldrim Thomson and Sherman Adams never could have contemplated.


David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.