early and often

The Extreme Makeover That Could Decide the Senate

Don Bolduc was gaffe-prone before a few million dollars’ worth of discipline.

Don Bolduc, joined by Nikki Haley, at Poor Boy’s Family Diner in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Photo: Brian Snyder/REUTERS
Don Bolduc, joined by Nikki Haley, at Poor Boy’s Family Diner in Londonderry, New Hampshire. Photo: Brian Snyder/REUTERS

Don Bolduc clenched his microphone on a rain-streaked October night in New Hampshire, the rasp in his voice betraying, strangely enough, a sense of hurt. Senator Maggie Hassan, it seemed, had burned deep into him this time. “You know what’s mean? Calling me a monster. You know what’s mean? Portraying me as someone who would allow a mother to die. You know what’s mean? Calling me an extremist — because I can show you film footage where she called me a great American hero. But now that I’m running for office, I’m the devil!”

Bolduc, the Republican candidate for Senate, was speaking in Conway, a modest resort town at the edge of the White Mountain National Forest. His warm-up act was Tulsi Gabbard, the former Democratic congresswoman, who joyously riled up the Fox News–adoring audience, fulminating about “woke” cabals and “anti-white racists” and Democrats belonging in insane asylums. Bolduc appeared to be after something else. After the retired Army brigadier general led the crowd of several hundred in a solemn Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem, he lamented skyrocketing inflation. He vowed to protect Social Security. He said he would not vote to ban abortion at the federal level. He was, before this crowd of voters, attempting a remarkable rebrand away from the fringe Trumper who repeatedly and unequivocally denied the outcome of the 2020 election, warned against Bill Gates implanting people with microchips, and called the state’s Republican governor “a Chinese Communist sympathizer.”

With the aid of local and national Republicans, 60-year-old Bolduc is reinventing himself as the folksy, common-sense military man Washington needs. This has enraged Democrats, who view him as both a nuisance and a danger, but the national environment for the party has grown dismal in the last few weeks. If Hassan goes down, Democrats will almost certainly lose the Senate. The 50-50 split leaves no margin for error.

One of the Bolduc campaign’s most glaring weaknesses may be an inadvertent strength: a lack of fundraising and campaign infrastructure. He has raised less than $1 million, a paltry sum for a race where Hassan has taken in almost ten times as much. But he has found an unlikely savior in Mitch McConnell.

The leader of Senate Republicans, as part of his quest to keep Donald Trump’s candidates from blowing the party’s chances in November, opposed Bolduc in the primary. Instead, he backed New Hampshire Senate president Chuck Morse, but thanks to Trump’s endorsement, Bolduc narrowly won — and looked like a certain loser against Hassan. McConnell saw an opportunity, and his Senate Leadership Fund super-PAC started spending millions of dollars lavishly on New Hampshire, virtually all of it on TV ads blasting Hassan and giving Bolduc a makeover as a middle-of-the-road Army veteran. “General Bolduc was magnanimous in victory,” said Jeb Bradley, the state senate’s Republican majority leader and a former Morse backer. “Republicans unified right away.”

In the month since, McConnell’s PAC has almost single-handedly defined Bolduc’s campaign in the public arena, imposing the sort of message discipline the political outsider would probably not be capable of otherwise. (He no longer talks up his plans to privatize Medicare or Social Security, toxic with working-class Republicans and Democrats alike.) “Democrats are in a predicament. Bolduc has no fucking money. None. That’s a gift to Bolduc,” said Arnie Arnesen, the longtime New Hampshire radio host and former Democratic state representative. “You don’t want Bolduc to run his own campaign ads. He’s a lunatic, he’s terrible, he puts his foot in his mouth. Republicans will craft the Bolduc that never was and never is.”

Even with his swerve from far-right primary firebrand to general-election hopeful, Bolduc’s string of controversies hasn’t ended. Earlier this month, Bolduc told supporters at a town hall that abortion decisions belong in the hands of “gentlemen” in the state legislature, pointing to male state lawmakers sitting in the crowd. He called the disposal of embryos for in vitro fertilization a “disgusting practice.” Past remarks continue to haunt him, too: In 2020, while running unsuccessfully for the Senate, he disparaged the use of Narcan to save people from opioid overdoses, saying it “keeps them addicted.” (Bolduc’s campaign did not make him available for an interview.)

Now it is up to Bolduc to see if he can stay disciplined without McConnell’s help: The Senate Leadership Fund said late last week it was canceling an additional $5.6 million in ads in favor of campaigns elsewhere. (Bolduc still has said he wouldn’t support McConnell for majority leader.) The National Republican Senatorial Committee had pulled out of the race earlier, but then it reversed itself following a poll showing Bolduc within three points of Hassan and contributed to a $1 million advertising buy against her. “We always thought this would be a very, very close race,” Hassan told me in Gorham after visiting a local brewery. “When I think through his extremism and those positions, it is a reminder that this is somebody who wants to impose an extreme agenda on our state, and I will keep making that case.” But she is aware that flaying him may not be enough. “Obviously, inflation is straining families, it’s hurting people, it’s hurting small businesses,” she said. “The country has been through a lot; people have a lot of concerns.”

Many veterans run for office, but few of them are former generals who served ten tours in Afghanistan — a 2,000-pound U.S. bomb once dropped near Bolduc, killing American troops nearby — and received two Purple Hearts, including one after surviving a helicopter crash. On the stump, he talks about missing Thanksgiving and Christmas with family because he refused to go home if the troops he was commanding couldn’t go as well. “He’s a military person, and they have really good logic to them and care for their mother country,” said Janice Lord, a local who had lined up to see Bolduc in Conway. In 2016, the New York Times profiled him as one of the few military leaders willing to talk openly about the post-traumatic stress disorder he suffered from the battlefield. “The powerful thing is that I can use myself as an example,” he said back then. “And thank goodness not everybody can do that. But I’m able to do it, so that has some sort of different type of credibility to it.”

Bolduc’s service has allowed fellow Army veteran Jess Edwards, a Republican state representative, to partially look past his most outlandish positions. “You know, he’s a rookie, he’s a political rookie, he’s not used to having a microphone in front of him and having every phrase potentially isolated and highlighted,” he said. “I’ve just focused on how I think a person would vote. I think he would be a much better vote than Hassan. I don’t much care what he has said. I care what he will do.”

On the ground, it’s easy to see how Bolduc can win over skeptics. He’s quick with jokes and at ease with small talk, a natural retail politician in a small, rural state where town meetings and intimate rallies still matter. In Conway, Gabbard was running late, and Bolduc ambled around the gymnasium reminiscing on his military days and bantering with a 5-year-old son of a supporter. It may be this jocular nature and his willingness to pivot — like into his new, reluctantly held position that Biden won the 2020 election — as well as partisan polarization wiping out “Yankee Republicans” that will bring enough conservatives into the fold. “Many of the Republicans who said they would never vote for Bolduc will probably come around to voting for him,” said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire’s Survey Center. “Ninety-eight percent of Democrats will be for Hassan.”

Maggie Hassan arrives with her husband Thomas in Newfields to vote in the September primary. Photo: Scott Eisen/Getty Images

With just over a million people, New Hampshire is something of a microcosm for the strengths and weaknesses of the modern Democratic Party. It is the platonic ideal of a purple state with two Democratic senators but a Republican-run statehouse, and Biden carried it by eight points — the kind of margin that can evaporate in a midterm wave. Hassan should be favored to win, but she clinched her first Senate race six years ago by about 1,000 votes over Kelly Ayotte, a Republican who clung close to John McCain. Today, rural areas are starkly Republican, as well as the old mill towns where unionized manufacturers kept working-class voters in the Democratic fold for decades. The affluent suburban counties within commuting distance of Boston reliably vote blue now, offering a cushion for Democratic statewide candidates.

A low-key, center-left lawmaker, Hassan isn’t known as a particularly electrifying or dogged campaigner — “She reminds me of wallpaper,” Arnesen, the radio host, quipped. But she is running the sort of focused race the wonky, popularist pundits have always craved out of their swing-state candidates. On the stump, she talks up her bipartisan legislation with Republican senator Bill Cassidy to combat surprise medical bills, champions infrastructure spending, and speaks about how she worked in Congress to bring semiconductor-chip manufacturing to America. To win over rural voters, she argued, “you talk to them about what you’ve actually delivered. Among the things that I talk about with voters up here and in rural communities throughout my state is the work that Senator [Susan] Collins and I did to preserve funding for rural school districts and the work she and I have done to get support to rural districts so they can align their education programs with the economy of those areas.”

Those same rural areas may be enough to win a GOP primary, but assembling a general-election coalition is another matter for Bolduc. Higher-educated, wealthier voters in populous Southern Tier towns like Bedford and Hollis who may prefer a Republican candidate in a year like this one could still be alienated by him, argued Steve Marchand, a New Hampshire Democratic consultant and former gubernatorial candidate. “Don Bolduc’s problem is he’s not a very good match for a population already inclined to move away from Republicans unless you give them a candidate that makes them feel like one of them. Don Bolduc is not that.”

The Republican who can make that kind of appeal isn’t running for Senate at all, though McConnell and the national party badly wanted him. Governor Chris Sununu is seeking another term and is widely expected to win. The son of a former governor and the younger brother of a senator, he is political royalty in New Hampshire. He and Bolduc were naturally at odds — Sununu refused to support Bolduc in the primary and labeled him a “conspiracy-theory type” candidate — but have since reconciled, embracing awkwardly at a GOP unity breakfast. Bolduc will ultimately need Sununu more, since a relative blowout in the gubernatorial race could lift his own fortunes. A Sununu-Hassan voter, though, is plausible — the only question is whether there will be enough of them to return her to Washington.

The Extreme Makeover That Could Swing the Senate