2022 midterms

New Hampshire Senate Primary Could Be Another Unforced Error for GOP

Wacky ex-general Don Bolduc, the front-runner for the GOP Senate nomination in New Hampshire. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

If Republicans fall short of a Senate takeover bid that earlier this year looked very promising, they can blame it on the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision or Donald Trump’s unhelpful endorsements in multiple Senate primaries. But it’s pretty clear that, for whatever reason, the GOP has gone into a highly competitive midterm-election cycle with a suboptimal Senate-candidate roster. That is especially clear in New Hampshire, where the last Senate primary of the cycle (not counting Louisiana’s nonpartisan “jungle primary” on General Election Day) will take place September 13.

New Hampshire Republicans are haunted by a Senate candidacy that didn’t happen. Until Governor Chris Sununu took a pass on a race against vulnerable incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan, Republicans were confidently putting the Granite State in the “win” column. Sununu added insult to injury by disrespecting the very idea of service in the “world’s greatest deliberative body,” as Beltway types still unironically call the Senate.

“My responsibility is not to the gridlock and politics of Washington; it is to the citizens of New Hampshire,” Sununu said in November 2021. “I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than just slow down and end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results.”

Sununu’s demurral left New Hampshire Republicans with no obvious Senate champion and, worse yet, with a front-runner already in the field who doesn’t look like much of a winner in a state Democrats carried in the past five presidential contests (most recently by Joe Biden, who beat Trump by over seven points there in 2020). That would be retired Army general Don Bolduc, a walking right-wing gaffe machine, as ABC News notes:

Bolduc has made headlines for years with outlandish remarks, including calling Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer,” saying U.S. forces should “get in there on the ground” in Ukraine, pushing for the repeal of the 17th Amendment codifying direct popular election of U.S. senators. 

Conventionally for today’s GOP, Bolduc thinks the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Trump. But the general may have spoiled the chance of securing a crucial Trump endorsement this year by complaining that the 45th president’s agents had “rigged” a 2020 Senate primary by backing Corky Messner, who defeated Bolduc and went on to lose to Jeanne Shaheen in the general election. While Trump stayed out of the current Senate primary, other outsiders definitely haven’t. Both national Republicans and Democrats have paid lavishly for ads about Bolduc’s most prominent challenger, state-senate president Chuck Morse, as the New York Times reports:

National Democrats on Friday began a $3.1 million television advertising blitz aimed at influencing the opposing party’s contest, one day after national Republicans launched their own $4.5 million spree of ads. By the Sept. 13 primary, outside groups will have spent far more than all of the candidates combined.

The Republican ads praise — and the Democratic ads attack — Morse. The latter ads follow one of the 2022 cycle’s most controversial strategies: Democrats meddling in GOP primaries to help Republican voters reach the decision that vulnerable wack jobs deserve their nominations. In this case, Democrats are trying to help Bolduc (who hasn’t been able to raise enough money to run many ads of his own), calculating he would be toast against Hassan. Republicans agree; there’s even talk that the national GOP would pull planned general-election investments in New Hampshire if Bolduc is the nominee. Morse received a late endorsement from Sununu.

It’s entirely possible the Republican intervention to stop Bolduc occurred too late. Sparse public polling in August showed the general leading Morse by a two-to-one margin. But New Hampshire is a place where late trends can matter. It’s one of just four states with no in-person early voting, and voting by mail is strictly limited to those who apply for absentee ballots after meeting specific excuses. So what you see on Election Day is probably what you will get. And New Hampshire Republicans will get either a somewhat viable candidate or a chance to breathe fire right on through to November 8.

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New Hampshire Senate Primary Could Be Unforced Error for GOP