The Republican contest for Senate in New Hampshire emerged Tuesday as a tight race between conservative Donald Bolduc and the more moderate Chuck Morse as the final primary night of the midterm season again tested the far right's influence over the GOP.
The closely watched Republican Senate primary was too close to call shortly before midnight according to NBC News. Bolduc had a several thousand-vote lead over Morse, but with nearly 30% of precincts not yet reporting.
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Republicans see Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire as beatable in the general election, now just eight weeks away. But a strong competitor in the GOP contest is Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general who some in the party believe is too far to the right for some swing voters in the general election. Morse, the president of the state Senate, has been backed by the Republican establishment.
The state's senate seat could prove pivotal for whichever party controls the chamber after November. President Joe Biden carried New Hampshire by more than 7 percentage points and Bolduc has campaigned on a platform that includes lies that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and conspiracy theories about vaccines.
Hassan clinched her party's nomination against only token opposition while Gov. Chris Sununu won the Republican party's nomination for another term. He's heavily favored against Democrat Tom Sherman, who was unopposed for his party's governor's nomination.
Sherman, a state senator and physician, was quick to remind voters that Sununu signed a late-term abortion ban into law last year. "As governor I will stand up for our freedoms and protect a woman's right to choose, not cave to extremists like Chris Sununu," he said.
Sununu countered in a statement that the "stakes are too high this November to change direction now."
Still, a Bolduc victory might reignite disappointment among some national Republicans that 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. Bolduc has nonetheless 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 concluding the nominating process for this year's midterms. There are also primaries Tuesday in Rhode Island and Delaware, where President Joe Biden traveled late Tuesday to cast his ballot.
But New Hampshire's Senate race is perhaps most revealing about the direction of the GOP. Morse has been endorsed by Sununu, who called him "the candidate to beat Sen. Hassan this November and the candidate Sen. Hassan is most afraid to face."
By contrast, Sununu called Bolduc a conspiracy theorist and suggested he could have a tougher time winning the general election.
Bolduc wasn't bothered by Sununu's criticism, calling the governor "a Chinese communist sympathizer." Bolduc wasn't 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."
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The final primary contests unfolded 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.
Karoline Leavitt, who worked in Trump's White House’s press office and has also campaigned with Republican Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, declared victory late Tuesday, and NBC News projected that she'd won.
Leavitt said she was “sending a strong and clear message to the Washington, D.C., establishment, and our Democratic opponent that our votes cannot be bought, our conservative voices can not be silenced.”
"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."
The GOP field in the race also included 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. Matt Mowers, who won the district's congressional 2020 Republican nomination and was a Trump administration State Department adviser, was also running.