Gov. Chris Sununu edged just a baby step closer to a run for the U.S. Senate in 2020 but he sure turned up the heat should a showdown with U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen come to pass next year.

Sununu warned the two-term Shaheen she should be worried about her reelection.

“One thing evident in those polls is people want someone other than Jeanne Shaheen,” Sununu told reporters after the Executive Council meeting.

“I think the mandate is very clear they want someone other than Jeanne Shaheen and she is very vulnerable and there are a variety of Republicans out there who can beat her in 2020 and that’s why she came out so early.”

A pair of independent polls have recently found a Shaheen-Sununu race would be a dead heat right now.

After months of insisting he had no interest in going to Washington, the two-term Republican governor said he would “not rule out” a Senate campaign, but had no timetable for making that decision.

Sununu’s team had already formed a political action committee to finance his third run for governor next year and the Newfields resident insisted his current job remains his singular focus.

“The only Democrats I am focused on defeating right now are those in the Legislature that are trying to impose taxes and regulation and I’m maintaining my 100 percent effort on that,” Sununu said.

Democratic Party Chairman Raymond Buckley said it’s Sununu who should worry about his political survival.

“Jeanne Shaheen is doing her job for New Hampshire — like fighting to protect funding at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard from President Trump. Sununu ought to have the guts to join the senator in standing up for New Hampshire rather than making phony political predictions,” Buckley said.

Conspiracy theorists recall that it was Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassan who in early 2015 stepped up her out-of-state travel. She publicly dismissed but refused to rule out a U.S. Senate run against Kelly Ayotte.

By the time Hassan confirmed during the early fall that she was running, it had become the worst-kept secret in New Hampshire politics.

Meanwhile Sununu’s decision to allow this speculation to persist may only increase the leverage he needs to have with legislative leaders over the next several months.

It is worth pointing out Shaheen easily is the most popular right now among the all-Democratic congressional delegation.

Shaheen also won reelection over former Sen. Scott Brown in 2014 in a year that was not a good midterm election for Democrats.

Merrimack tollbooth debate

With all the massive issues facing the New Hampshire Legislature in this budget-year session, why would the state Senate be fast-tracking a bill dealing with closing a tollbooth off the F.E. Everett Turnpike in Merrimack?

It’s all about the District 11 seat now held by Sen. Shannon Chandley, a one-term Democrat from Amherst.

Early on, Chandley realized her bill to eliminate the toll at Exit 11 was a non-starter so she amended it to remove the tolls at three turnpike exits in Merrimack once the bonds are paid off in 2024.

As my colleague Dave Solomon reported this week, Department of Transportation officials had serious financial concerns with this approach and questioned if it could affect the turnpike system’s bond rating.

Given the deference to DOT at the State House by both political parties, Chandley may not be able to achieve anything concrete this year.

But the effort is clearly worth it.

Lawmakers will be debating a 10-year highway plan next year and she could resurrect the topic at that point.

Merrimack is the largest of four towns in Chandley’s district. While she upset incumbent Milford Republican Gary Daniels by more than 1,100 votes last November, she won Merrimack by under 100 votes.

State House observers will recall in 2014 it was then-Senate president Peter Bragdon, R-Milford, who pushed through legislation to close the ramp tolls at Exit 12 in Merrimack, helping him fend off any future challenge from Merrimack Republicans.

Daniels hasn’t ruled out running again for the seat in 2020; anything Chandley does to show Merrimack voters she’s committed to pushing for more toll relief would only help her.

Sununu still with Trump

Despite a nudge from workers at the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard, Sununu showed no signs of backing off support for President Trump’s emergency declaration to divert federal money to build the border wall.

Shipyard workers maintain that four projects spending up to $161 million could be affected by Trump’s moves to take Defense Department and National Guard spending to support the wall project.

But Sununu said he remains skeptical any New Hampshire spending could be at risk.

“Obviously we don’t want to see funding in any way diverted out of New Hampshire,” Sununu began.

Later he added, “We want to make sure those funds aren’t diverted; at the same time I will say the crisis at the border is real, it has a real impact on our state. Congress failed to do its job.”

Sununu said opioid trafficking through the southern border fueled New Hampshire’s drug epidemic and he called for Congress to “take up immigration as a whole” and not just the border project.

“We sent Congress to do a job; it’s time for them to finally do it,” Sununu added.

The U.S. Senate is expected later today to join the House in approving a resolution to oppose the emergency declaration. (For more Granite Status, go to www.unionleader.com.)

Trade rep put on spot

For the second time in less than a month, Sen. Hassan used her new perch on the Senate Finance Committee to call a Trump administration official on the carpet.

This time it was U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lightizer. The topic was getting China to make the criminalizing of fentanyl part of any final trade agreement between the two countries.

Hassan maintained President Trump was backtracking from his assurance this would happen.

“Given the level of importance this has for so many, will you commit that any final agreement will include this step which the President has touted as a ‘gamechanger’”? Hassan said.

Lightizer answered in part, “And then the question is, do we write it in the trade agreement? And my own preference would be that we do, but whether it’s in the trade agreement or not, the President of the United States views himself as having a commitment and he views it as something that’s gonna happen.”

Hassan fired back, “Almost 500 people died in 2017 and in 2016 from overdoses of opioids in my state, most of which came from fentanyl, so I would ask you to identify this as a priority.”

High-profile board seat

When it comes to progressive politics, Manchester Mayor Joyce Craig got an invitation to the big time this week.

The Let America Vote organization put Craig on its national advisory board, which includes among its members national Democratic phenom Stacey Adams, Martin Luther King III, actor Bradley Whitford and former Planned Parenthood CEO Cecile Richards.

“It is crucial that we continue to fight voter suppression and ensure every eligible citizen has the right to vote,” Craig said.

In 2017, Let America Vote devoted plenty of volunteer and staff time to help Craig unseat then-Manchester mayor Ted Gatsas.

Legalizing pot debate comes up

As the policy fight heats up at the State House, Americans for Prosperity is hosting a debate next Monday on marijuana legalization in New Hampshire.

Former NH House SpeakerBill O’Brien , who is exploring his own GOP Senate run against Shaheen, will moderate this event from 6:30 to 8 p.m. at the Nackey S. Loeb School of Communications in Manchester.

The panel of supporters will be ex-state representative Joe Hannon, who served on the marijuana study commission; Matt Simon, New England political director of the Marijuana Policy Project; and Ross Connolly with AFP.

The opponents will be Neil Hubacker with Cornerstone NH, Rep. Stephen Pearson, R-Derry and Rep. Pat Abami, R-Stratham, and chairman of the study commission.

Josiah Bartlett slams minimum wage hike

The fiscally conservative Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy issued a critical white paper on the eve of today’s votes in the House to raise the minimum wage and the Senate to create a prevailing wage that must be paid on construction projects in the state.

The report maintained these moves would result in job losses for the least-skilled workers and raise such costs as day care.

”Though these wage mandates are intended to be a forced wealth transfer from businesses to low-income employees, they wind up creating a forced wealth transfer from the lowest-skilled workers to higher-skilled competitors,” the center concluded.

All this isn’t likely to dampen support among the Democratically-controlled House and Senate for both bills.

Senate President Donna Soucy, D-Manchester, pointed out New Hampshire lacks its own minimum, relies on the federal standard and polls consistently show up to 70 percent of likely voters favor an increase.

Sanders’ NH 2020 team new, old faces

Bernie Sanderssignaled how important he believes winning the first-in-the-nation primary in 2020 is with his choice of top staffers in New Hampshire.

Managing the effort will be Joe Caiazzo who just came off the reelection of Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse’s campaign in Rhode Island. Caiazzo had been political director for Sanders in both Rhode Island and Massachusetts during 2016 and in the general served as Hillary Clinton’s state director.

Carli Stevenson, a Hampton native, becomes deputy director and communications director and was the deputy spokeswoman for Sanders in New Hampshire in 2016 and went on to work in Minnesota, Ohio and Indiana. Her career of labor organizing also included a stint with the state party and issue campaigns here.

Kurt Ehrenberg of Portsmouth will be a senior adviser to Sanders here after having been in 2016 the state political director for the candidate. In 2018 he worked on Mark McKenzie’s Democratic bid for the 1st Congressional District.

Bail reform solution still taking shape

Sununu is not picking sides or weighing in on details right now, at least between competing versions of legislation to overhaul the 2018 bail reform law.

But he urged lawmakers in both bodies to work with prosecutors and “all stakeholders” to ensure the fix this time is a lasting one.

”Let’s try to get this thing right so we don’t have to keep going back to this year after year,” Sununu said.

The fact a superior court judge was required to hold a bail hearing for accused murderer Justin Moura in Manchester on Tuesday was one example of the need to tweak this statute, but Sununu said there are many others not in the headlines.”

”I am happy to see some reform is taking shape,” Sununu added.

Shaheen gets Irish group’s blessing

Shaheen was honored last night with a leadership in government and public service award from the Ireland Funds at the group’s 27th gala in Washington.

{p class=”TweetTextSize TweetTextSize--normal js-tweet-text tweet-text” lang=”en” xml:lang=”en” data-aria-label-part=”0”}The Irish prime minister was in attendance as Shaheen got one of four awards for her work as the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee dealing with European security.