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Analysis

N.H. was supposed to be the GOP’s best chance for a Senate pickup in 2022. After a few Republican false starts, it’s unclear where things stand.

Senator Maggie Hassan.SARAH SILBIGER/Associated Press

Last fall, Republicans were nearly salivating over the opportunity to defeat Democratic US Senator Maggie Hassan in New Hampshire, and with that flip the 50-50 Senate back to Republican control.

All the pieces were coming into place. Hassan had low approval ratings. President Biden, himself, was becoming more unpopular according to the polling. Republicans showed in the 2021 Virginia and New Jersey races for governor that the grass-roots electorate was fired up. And, unlike in other states, it was looking increasingly likely that Republicans had found a promising recruit: popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu.

Poll after poll suggested Sununu would win a tough campaign, and he had the political winds at his back.

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Then it all changed. And one tactical move may have cost the Republicans dearly.

First, Sununu announced in early November that he would not be a candidate. Minutes later, former US senator Kelly Ayotte also declined to run in what would be a rematch with Hassan from 2016. Roughly 30 minutes after that, Scott Brown, the 2014 Senate Republican nominee, also declined a run.

Suddenly all the big-name Republicans were sitting out on what was still a big chance opportunity. By the end of the day calls were being made to encourage state Senate President Chuck Morse to run.

Morse may have run for governor had Sununu given up the seat for the Senate run, but he seemed to be at least receptive to the idea. He rarely sent out e-mail fund-raising pitches, but Morse began doing so with clever language meant to wink at the idea that he could jump into the Senate race at any moment.

He didn’t then. He didn’t a month later. In fact, for a period Morse just went dark. But he eventually did join the race two months later with an announcement in early January and a kick-off event at his small business last weekend.

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Had he entered the race in November, he likely would have found the field essentially cleared for him. The one Republican already in the race, retired Army brigadier general Don Bolduc, wasn’t raising the money needed to compete with the $14 million Hassan had already raised.

Morse’s hesitance created a vacuum and a belief that there wasn’t anyone committed to running. Soon Londonderry town manager Kevin Smith, a affable former candidate for governor, was being talked into running. And why wouldn’t Smith run? He has been basically out of politics for a decade and the Republican nomination was up for grabs in what could be a huge Republican year.

In the end, Smith and Morse announced their candidacies within a day of each other. Neither is a more dominant presence than the other.

This race went from a likely Republican takeover to who knows what. Even with Sununu, Ayotte, and Brown out of the race, a Republican with a consolidated backing would still have a very good chance at beating a Democrat in this midterm election in a swing state. But now we have a primary in mid-September and just a six weeks-long general election in which the winner will need to replenish funds, campaign full time against Hassan, and smooth things over with Republicans who opposed him.

Both Smith and Morse are expected to raise enough money from this nationally-watched contest to be able to run solid races. That said, while they are expected to, they haven’t yet. It’s too early to tell if that will happen.

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Meanwhile here is the real twist: a poll out last week from Saint Anselm College found that while Hassan would beat all Republican challengers, the one who had the best chance to defeat her was Bolduc, the candidate the establishment has shunned because they don’t think he can win.

This is a contest where an endorsement from Donald Trump could provide clarity and be helpful early on in cleaning up a primary. But there is a real reason why he should sit this one out. Morse backed Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican presidential primary. The last time Smith made a public endorsement for president it was for Rudy Giuliani, back when he was the most moderate serious option. And, while Bolduc and Trump did briefly talk months ago, Trump endorsed Bolduc’s primary opponent when he ran for the Senate two years ago.

While Trump could be helpful to Republicans if he made an endorsement soon, it should be noted that in 2020 the state didn’t for vote Trump and didn’t vote for the people he endorsed for Senate or Congress, either. So it is unclear if the Trump endorsement would be a problem for a candidate in the general election.

Nevertheless, while Republicans have committed a number of self-inflicted wounds the last few months of this race, they should hardly be counted out. Hassan is still very unpopular even though she has spent millions in ads this fall trying to turn that around. Biden’s presidency is more unpopular than ever in New Hampshire. And the race will have more to do with Biden than it does the choice between Hassan and whomever she is running against.

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Still, Hassan and Democrats have to be feeling better about this race now than they did in October.


James Pindell can be reached at james.pindell@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jamespindell and on Instagram @jameswpindell.