CONCORD, N.H. (AP) — A staunchly conservative retired Army general is vying for the chance to take on Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire in a contest many Republicans hoped would be among their best chances to flip a Senate seat this year.
But the prospect of Don Bolduc winning Tuesday's GOP Senate primary has dampened those ambitions. In a state that President Joe Biden carried by more than 7 percentage points, Bolduc has campaigned on a platform that includes lies that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and conspiracy theories about vaccines.
That underscores the sense of disappointment among some national Republicans that Gov. Chris Sununu, a relatively popular moderate who likely could have posed more of a threat to Hassan, chose instead to run for reelection. The GOP is grappling with the possibility of again nominating a candidate who is popular with the party's base but struggles to broaden support ahead of the November general election.
Republican primary voters have similarly chosen conservative candidates this year in moderate or Democratic-leaning states including Massachusetts and Maryland, potentially putting competitive races out of the party's reach.
Neil Levesque, director of the New Hampshire Institute of Politics, said Bolduc is a type of candidate who would have struggled to succeed in GOP politics before Trump's rise. He's never held elected office and had just $75,000 in cash on hand last week. Still, Bolduc has been able to make inroads by positioning himself as an ally of Trump and his election falsehoods.
“That is because the theme of his campaign and messaging is very similar to former President Trump,” Levesque said. “If it mirrors the former president, it’s been effective.”
Federal and state officials and Trump’s own attorney general have said there is no credible evidence the election was tainted. The former president’s allegations of fraud were also roundly rejected by courts, including by judges Trump appointed.
Known for kicking off the primary season during presidential campaigns, New Hampshire is instead marking the conclusion of the nominating process for this year's midterms. There are also contests on Tuesday in Delaware and Rhode Island.
But the U.S. Senate race in New Hampshire is perhaps most revealing about the direction of the GOP. Bolduc is competing in a crowded field that includes Chuck Morse, the more moderate president of the New Hampshire state Senate, who has been endorsed by Sununu. The governor called Morse “the candidate to beat Sen. Hassan this November and the candidate Sen. Hassan is most afraid to face.”
Sununu feels differently about Bolduc, whom he’s called a conspiracy theorist while warning that Bolduc could have a harder time winning the general election.
Bolduc doesn't seem bothered by Sununu’s criticism. He’s called the governor “a Chinese communist sympathizer." Bolduc hasn’t been formally endorsed by Trump, who propelled many primary candidates to victory in key races throughout the summer. But the former president has called Bolduc a “strong guy.”
The final primary contests are unfolding at a dramatic moment in the midterm campaign. Republicans have spent much of the year building their election-year message around Biden and his management of the economy, particularly soaring prices. But Democrats are now entering the final stretch with a sense of cautious optimism as approval of Biden steadies and inflation has slowed for the second straight month, even as it remains high.
The Supreme Court's decision overturning a woman's constitutional right to an abortion may provide Democrats with the energy they need to turn back the defeats that historically accompany a new president's first midterms.
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell acknowledged the challenge last month, saying his party may be more likely to end Democrats' narrow control of the House than the Senate. He bemoaned “candidate quality” as a factor that could sway some outcomes in his chamber.
Some Democratic groups, meanwhile, have sponsored primary ads promoting Bolduc, predicting he'll make an easier November opponent for Hassan. That's consistent with Democratic-aligned organizations backing pro-Trump candidates in key races around the country — a strategy some have criticized, arguing that it could backfire if those candidates go on to win their general elections.
Republicans in New Hampshire and around the country scoff at the notion that being a Trump loyalist — or not — could be a deciding general election factor, noting that the still unpopular Biden will be a drag on his party regardless.
The New Hampshire Republican Party has tweeted that Hassan “votes with Joe Biden 96.4% of the time.”
Many of the same dynamics swirling around the former president are at work in New Hampshire's 2nd Congressional District, where pro-Trump candidate Bob Burns is among several Republicans vying for the party's nomination to face five-term incumbent Democratic Rep. Annie Kuster.
In New Hampshire's other congressional district, which encompasses Manchester and the southeastern part of the state, several Republicans are vying to challenge Democratic Rep. Chris Pappas, who could also face a potentially close general election reelection contest — once he learns who his opponent will be.
The GOP field includes former TV broadcaster Gail Huff Brown, wife of Scott Brown, a former U.S. senator from Massachusetts and ambassador to New Zealand during the Trump administration. Also running is Matt Mowers, who won the district's congressional 2020 Republican nomination and was a Trump administration State Department adviser.
But the candidate closest to Trump may be Karoline Leavitt, who worked in his White House's press office and has also campaigned with Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz.
“Her compass always points to Trump," said Dante Scala, a University of New Hampshire political science professor. He added, in reference to the former president's “Make America Great Again” campaign slogan, "She, in a very kind of crisp, sharp, confident way, will say the most MAGA thing that can be said in any situation.”
Weissert reported from Washington.