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New Hampshire primary race too close to call as Don Bolduc holds narrow lead

todaySeptember 14, 2022 1

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By Sam Cabral

BBC News, Washington

Image shows Don Bolduc (centre) with supporters)Image source, Getty Images

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Don Bolduc (centre) is the frontrunner in the Republican primary election in New Hampshire

A New Hampshire primary election that Republicans hope could be their path to winning back control of the US Senate remains too close to call, as members of the party race to head off the frontrunner.

The eleven candidates on Tuesday’s ballot were vying for the chance to challenge Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan in November’s midterm election.

Defeating the vulnerable incumbent would give Republicans the seat they need to regain a majority in the upper chamber of Congress – and with it, a chance to derail the White House’s agenda.

But leading the Republican pack in the Granite State’s primary is Don Bolduc, a retired army general viewed by some in his own party as a weak candidate who is too extreme to win in November.

With 85% of ballots counted by Wednesday morning, Mr Bolduc currently leads with 37%. His closest competitor – Chuck Morse – is trailing by about 1,200 votes.

A veteran of 10 tours of Afghanistan, Mr Bolduc has falsely claimed that coronavirus vaccines contain microchips and that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election.

The 61-year-old has also raised less than $600,000 (£514,000) from grassroots donors in the same amount of time that Ms Hassan has amassed more than $31m (£27m).

Republican prospects of retaking the Senate have dimmed in recent weeks, as candidates in key battleground states have struggled to gain traction and abortion has emerged as a key issue for voters. Top party figures are fretting a Bolduc nomination will doom the effort.

On the advice of allies in the state, Mr Trump – whose endorsement remains highly coveted in Republican primaries – did not weigh in on the race.

“It was a rare moment of pragmatism from Trump,” said Fergus Cullen, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, adding that an endorsement would likely have decided the winner.

Mr Cullen suggested the former president – who is considering another White House run in 2024 – may be keeping his powder dry in the state where the nominating contest begins.

In a recent radio interview, however, Mr Trump lauded Mr Bolduc as a “strong guy, tough guy” who had “said some great things”.

The Bolduc campaign promptly responded: “Just like President Trump did when he was elected in 2016, Don Bolduc will go to DC and drain the dreaded swamp.”

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Senator Maggie Hassan, a Democrat, is defending the seat she won in 2016

Polls had shown the former general well ahead in the race, sometimes posting double-digit leads over an otherwise divided field.

The intrigue over the race began last year after national-level Republicans tried for months to recruit New Hampshire’s three-term governor Chris Sununu, who had publicly flirted with a run.

Mr Sununu, 47, a moderate Republican from a political family, was seen as the strongest option to defeat Ms Hassan, but he turned down the opportunity in November.

Slamming the US Senate, he said: “I’d rather push myself 120 miles an hour delivering wins for New Hampshire than to slow down, end up on Capitol Hill debating partisan politics without results.”

The governor has long bemoaned the state of national politics. He has also been an outlier in the party with his outspoken criticisms of Mr Trump, calling the ex-president “[expletive] crazy” in April.

But with Mr Bolduc emerging dominant from the scrum since then, politics has made strange bedfellows.

Mr Sununu – who has hammered the frontrunner for weeks as “a conspiracy theorist candidate” whom “nobody takes seriously” – threw his weight last week behind Mr Morse, the state senate president and a long-time political ally, and said he had urged Mr Trump to “get involved in the race”.

National Republicans have joined the fight too. White Mountain PAC, an outside group created just last month, has plunged more than $4m (£3.5m) into TV ads boosting Mr Morse into the final fortnight of the campaign. The Senate Leadership Fund, which is controlled by the powerful Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, announced it plans to spend at least $23m in ads in the state through November – although it is unclear if it will do so if Mr Bolduc is the nominee.

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

Republicans wary of Mr Bolduc have thrown their weight behind state Senate President Chuck Morse (centre)

Outside groups with ties to the Democratic Party have also piled into the race – with the intent of boosting Mr Bolduc. To their minds, his controversial positions would make him a weaker opponent in a general election.

A Democratic group, Senate Majority PAC, has spent more than $3m on ads that describe Mr Morse as “another sleazy politician” who will do the bidding of “Mitch McConnell’s Washington establishment”.

Underlying the drama is the very real possibility that Senator Hassan could lose in November.

Having won her seat in 2016 by only about a thousand votes, Ms Hassan is underwater with New Hampshire voters.

Mr Cullen, the former Republican Party official, said that the senator has been “invisible” since she went to Washington and “deserves to be defeated”.

“This isn’t Illinois or New York – a big state where people have no expectation that they’re going to see a United States senator in person,” he said. “This is a state with 1.3 million people, where people do expect to see their US Senators speaking at the local Rotary Club, or at the Chamber of Commerce, or showing up for a community event.”

The Hassan campaign has indicated it will make protecting access to abortion a central issue in the race against opponents with “anti-choice records”.

But her Republican rivals have painted Ms Hassan as the “rubber stamp” to an unpopular Democratic agenda and, amid record levels of inflation and fears of a recession, voter discontent with the party that controls Washington remains high.

Whether the Republicans are ultimately able to capitalise on these sentiments though will likely come down to who they choose.

“If Bolduc wins, the Democrats will be patting themselves on the back and Bolduc will owe them a debt of gratitude for getting him into the general election,” said Mr Cullen.

“But the next day, they’re going to turn around and paint him as too Trumpy for New Hampshire and not prepared for the office he’s seeking – and they’ll be right.”

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