WASHINGTON — In the last primary of the season, Republicans in New Hampshire chose Don Bolduc, a firebrand who echoes former president Donald Trump’s false claims of having won the 2020 election, for Senate, giving Democrats the matchup against incumbent Maggie Hassan that they wanted.
But Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general, may still pose a tough challenge in November for Hassan, who is viewed as one of the more vulnerable Democratic senators up for reelection this cycle. The race is expected to draw massive spending from both parties as one of the more competitive seats crucial to either’s path to control the Senate in 2023.
The Associated Press on Wednesday projected Bolduc would win the primary with around 37 percent of the vote. That would give the more Trump-aligned and anti-establishment candidates, who also won nominations in two House seats, a sweep in New Hampshire.
The race was closer than polls had predicted: With nearly 95 percent of the vote in, Bolduc was leading state Senate President Chuck Morse by fewer than 1,800 votes, or 1.3 percentage points.
A last-minute infusion of millions of dollars of advertising supercharged the otherwise sleepy primary, which was populated by candidates who had low name recognition and lackluster fund-raising of their own. A political action committee run by allies of Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell spent millions on ads to boost Morse, while the Democrats’ top Senate PAC spent millions painting Morse as a McConnell crony. While on its face the Democrats’ ad seemed aimed solely at Morse, the effort was also seen as a way to boost Bolduc as an outsider to appeal to the Republican base. Democrats hope Bolduc, while popular with many Republicans, would prove unpalatable to general election swing voters.
Trump did not make an endorsement in the race.
Hassan’s campaign quickly seized on Bolduc’s victory, attacking him in the press and airwaves on Wednesday, including a new ad on abortion that hit Bolduc for “taking away your personal freedoms.”
The first-term senator and former two-term governor also held a call with reporters in which she attacked Bolduc as “the most extreme candidate for US Senate that New Hampshire has seen in decades.”
She cited past comments of Bolduc’s, including advocating for replacing Social Security, repeating conspiracy theories around the 2020 election results, and entertaining the idea of abolishing the FBI as well as the constitutional amendment enacting direct election of senators.
She focused in particular on Bolduc’s full-throated endorsement of abortion restrictions in the past, when he spoke of “no compromise” on the issue of “life,” a phrase that generally reflects outlawing abortion entirely.
New Hampshire is one of the more pro-abortion rights states in the country, with 70 percent of voters saying they support such rights in a recent poll. Hassan characterized her views on abortion as allowing women to make their own health care decisions, and her campaign noted several past remarks from Bolduc including that he “rejoice[d]” at the Supreme Court decision erasing the right to abortion. He also vowed not to “vote contrary to pro-life” last year.
“Don Bolduc opposes the rights of women to make their own health care decisions,” Hassan said in her call with reporters. “We are the Live Free or Die state, we mean it, and it is an outrage to think that our daughters will have fewer rights than we did.”
Bolduc, for his part, is distancing himself from his abortion positions as he pivots to the general election, telling Fox News’ Paul Steinhauser on Tuesday night at his victory party that he would not support a 15-week abortion ban introduced by South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and instead would leave the issue up to the states. He called Hassan’s position against abortion restrictions the outlier.
Polls show Hassan is vulnerable, as voters struggle with inflation and worry about the economy. In a recent St. Anselm College poll, only 39 percent of New Hampshire voters said Hassan deserves reelection, while 53 percent said they prefer someone new. Republicans also believe the wind will be at their backs nationwide in November, given voters’ pessimism about the economy and historic trends that benefit the party that’s out of the White House.
Democrats, though, have been buoyed by the reaction to the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, which has boosted enthusiasm among liberal voters, prompted a surge in women registering to vote in some states, and improved Democratic candidates’ standing in polls. Voters in reliably red Kansas resoundingly defeated a ballot measure last month that would have paved the way for an abortion ban. Their optimism has increased as Republicans across the country have selected the further-right candidates in many primaries, giving Democrats hope they can peel off independents and even moderate Republicans. McConnell himself has lamented that “candidate quality” can affect whether Republicans take back the Senate, causing an internal feud with the party’s campaign arm, the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), which has remained neutral in primaries.
Bolduc has also been publicly at odds with the popular Republican governor in New Hampshire, Chris Sununu, who passed on the opportunity to run for the Senate. Sununu has dismissed Bolduc as “not a serious candidate.” Bolduc has called Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer,” though he later tried to walk back his words.
But Republicans are still hopeful about their chances. The NRSC has $7 million in ad time reserved against Hassan, a spokesman said, and put out a statement backing Bolduc.
“Inflation, a border crisis, rising crime, and a sputtering economy is the direct result of Hassan and Biden’s failed leadership,” said NRSC chair and Florida Senator Rick Scott. “The NRSC is proud to stand with Don Bolduc as we turn New Hampshire red and flip the US Senate.”
And some Republicans who opposed Bolduc were turned off by Democrats’ ad buys against Morse in the final stretch, which likely benefited Bolduc. Hassan, for her part, said that she “can’t control what outside groups do” and that she supports reform to get dark money out of politics.
“It is pretty cynical for the president to decry MAGA Republicans and then for the Democratic Party to spend a small fortune doing its best to promote those candidates,” said Steve Duprey, a former longtime Republican Party official in New Hampshire who backed Morse.
Duprey, who backed Joe Biden over Trump in 2020, pointed to inflation and the president’s approval ratings as serious hurdles for Hassan.
“I know the Democrats think that Bolduc will be the easiest to beat,” he said. “Perhaps that’s so, but I think Hassan has a real race on her hands.”
Tal Kopan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @talkopan.