Republicans are staring down the possibility that a far-right candidate will prevail in New Hampshire’s GOP Senate primary, complicating what should be a prime pickup opportunity in the upper chamber.
Retired Army Gen. Don Bolduc (R), who’s accused the state’s governor of being a “Chinese communist sympathizer” and falsely claimed former President Trump won the 2020 election, has been leading a field of 11 GOP candidates to take on Sen. Maggie Hassan (D) in November.
In a sign of growing concern among Republicans in the state, Gov. Chris Sununu (R) made a last-minute endorsement of Senate President Chuck Morse (R), seen as the other leading GOP contender, in the hopes of shifting the race’s trajectory.
“This time there’s a real question, a concern that people like me have, that Gov. Sununu have, that if we nominate Bolduc our chances of winning this seat are greatly diminished,” said Fergus Cullen, former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP and a supporter of Morse.
“It’s pretty clear that the Democrats are salivating at the idea of running against him,” he added.
Republicans point to the fact that while Bolduc holds some name recognition after previously running for Senate, he performed poorly in the last GOP primary. Members of the party also say they’re less certain that the retired Army general can transition his campaign into general election mode just eight weeks out from the midterms.
“We don’t have any evidence that that’s the way he ran the last time,” said Thomas Rath, a former New Hampshire state attorney general and GOP strategist, adding, “I think it’s, especially with someone like Hassan, who’s a sort of centrist Democrat, it’s harder to paint her as an extremist.”
High-profile Republicans have lamented about what a possible Bolduc nomination could do for Republicans’ prospects for flipping the Senate seat in the Granite State.
Sununu said in a radio interview in August that “if he were the GOP nominee, I have no doubt we would have a much harder time,” and called the retired Army general a “conspiracy theorist-type candidate.”
The governor, however, said this past weekend that he would back whoever the GOP nominee is, even if Bolduc prevails on Tuesday.
Recent polling suggests that Bolduc enjoys a significant level of support from Republicans. A University of New Hampshire Survey Center Granite State Poll released late last month showed Bolduc leading Morse by 21 percent among likely Republican primary voters.
“Republicans are excited and energized to defeat liberal Maggie Hassan, who has delivered historically high inflation, gas prices that are out of control and she can’t break her spending habit. Gen. Don Bolduc is the outsider, the fighter Granite Staters are getting behind because he’s one of them,” Rick Wiley, an adviser for Bolduc, said in an email.
T.W. Arrighi, national press secretary for the Senate Republicans’ campaign arm, contended that Republicans would still have a shot at the Senate seat, saying that “whoever wins the New Hampshire Republican primary will be well-positioned to beat Maggie Hassan.”
Some Republicans believe the primary landscape has evolved over the past several weeks since the polls showing Bolduc leading were conducted, arguing that voters have only just started tuning into the primary. But some political observers question whether Morse has enough momentum to cross the finish line.
“My expectation is this will be a light- to moderate-turnout tomorrow, which means the more anti-establishment or sort of Trump-following Republicans will be the biggest percentage of voters, and if that is the case, then I think it helps Bolduc,” said Jim Demers, lobbyist and former Obama New Hampshire campaign chair.
“I know that the governor endorsed Morse last week, but I don’t know if that’s going to be enough considering what group may be the dominant sector that votes tomorrow.”
The primary comes against the backdrop of larger concerns Republicans are having about their prospects of flipping the Senate. In a midterm environment that should otherwise be favorable to the GOP, Senate Democratic challengers in multiple battleground states have gained momentum as they’ve raised eye-popping sums of money against their competitors.
In pre-primary reports filed earlier this month, Hassan’s campaign reported $7.3 million cash on hand, while Bolduc’s campaign reported about $83,900 cash on hand and Morse’s campaign said it had $582,000 cash on hand.
Some GOP candidates have also been mired in negative headlines or scandals. The evolving nature of some Senate races led Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) last month to hedge that the upper chamber may be less likely to flip than the House over concerns of candidate quality.
The stakes of having a competitive edge in this Senate race are high. Hassan’s seat has been rated by the nonpartisan election handicapper Cook Political Report as “lean Democrat,” and the McConnell-tied Senate Leadership Fund announced earlier this month that beginning Tuesday, it would be launching a $23 million-worth TV ad campaign in the state.
Hassan herself won her first election in 2016 within about a tenth of a percentage point, and some Republicans see her as an especially weak candidate.
“She is the juiciest target we have, it’s just we need a strong, capable candidate who won’t blow it,” said Dave Carney, a general consultant for Morse’s campaign.
In recent weeks, outside spending has flooded the state in an effort to sway which candidate will prevail on Tuesday. One super PAC reportedly tied to McConnell, White Mountain PAC, has aired ads in the state, spotlighting the retired Army general’s previous criticism of former President Trump and pointing to controversial statements he’s made.
At the same time, the Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC announced earlier this month that it was launching a $3.2 million ad campaign targeting Morse and calling the state Senate president “another sleazy politician.”
“We won’t sit idly by while Chuck Morse is currently on air attacking our candidate and hiding from his shameful ethics record — Granite Staters deserve to know the truth: Morse is beholden to his lobbyist donors and he’d be an automatic ‘yes’ vote for Mitch McConnell’s extreme agenda on abortion,” Veronica Yoo, a spokesperson for the Democratic PAC, said in a statement.
Carney called Democrats’ ads hitting the Republican candidate a “badge of honor,” noting later that “Democrats have been, in New Hampshire … trying to undercut Chuck because they know they want to run against Bolduc.”
Some Republicans, however, believe that Democrats’ meddling in the GOP Senate primary comes with its own set of risks.
Cullen, the former chairman of the New Hampshire GOP, acknowledged while their meddling in the primary was “smart politics,” he also noted that “the risk, as someone who cares about public policy and thinks this isn’t just about winning elections, is that some of these yahoos are going to end up in public office in some of these states.”
The Senate Majority PAC contends that it’s simply going on offense against Morse’s ads attacking Hassan. The super PAC argued that if Bolduc launched similar ads against the first-term incumbent, it would have responded similarly.
Other Republicans believe that their primary voters wouldn’t get caught up in Democrats’ onslaught of ads.
“New Hampshire voters are very savvy. Republican primary voters are going to see Democrats’ meddling in our primary and recognize that it for the stunt that it is,” said Jeff Grappone, a former aide to Republican Sens. John E. Sununu and Kelly Ayotte.