Late New Hampshire Senate Primary Divides Republican Voters

  • A plurality of GOP voters are undecided in Sept. 13 contest
  • GOP Gov. Chris Sununu may weigh in against frontrunner

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The last primary in this year’s marquee Senate races is also among the most unsettled.

With less than three weeks to go, candidates and political observers alike think voters are just starting to tune in to the New Hampshire Republican Senate primary. That late attention will decide who takes on Sen. Maggie Hassan (D), who faces one of the most competitive re-election races this fall.

“It is all up in the air, which is really exciting,” New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) said in an interview at a pizza joint in Exeter. “Even with just a month to go, it’s a wide open race.”

(Zach C. Cohen/Bloomberg Government)
New Hampshire Gov. Chris Sununu (R) speaking with a constituent at New England Pizza in Exeter, N.H. on Aug. 24, 2022.

New Hampshire’s status as a swing state — and Hassan’s own narrow, 1,021-vote victory in her first Senate race in 2016 — makes it a potential pick-up opportunity for Republicans looking to regain a Senate majority. But the contentious primary could yield a weakened nominee, giving Hassan a greater chance for re-election. It’s the rare 2022 Senate race in which former President Donald Trump hasn’t endorsed a candidate.

Polling on the primary has been limited. A Saint Anselm College poll earlier this month of 820 registered Republican voters found a plurality, 39%, remained undecided. Of those, more than half said they had only paid “a little” bit of attention to the Sept. 13 primary.

“The majority’s still out there to capture, and I think all of this is probably going to break in the last two weeks of this election,” said Kevin Smith (R), the former town manager of Londonderry, N.H. who is running for the seat and polling a distant third in the Saint Anselm poll. “And that’s the way it usually happens with these primaries, because it’s so late.”

Don Bolduc (R), a retired US Army brigadier general who sought the state’s other Senate seat in 2020, led the survey with 32%. His nearest challenger, New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse (R), trailed with 16%. Other candidates garnered only single-digit support.

Differentiating in the Primary

Bolduc, Morse, Smith, and financial investor Bruce Fenton (R) used a nationally televised debate hosted by Newsmax on Wednesday to differentiate from each other.

(Photo by Zach C. Cohen/Bloomberg Government)
Republican US Senate candidates participate in an Aug. 24, 2022, debate hosted by Newsmax at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, N.H.

Standing on stage at Saint Anselm College, Smith criticized Morse for opposing the construction of gas pipelines in the state and voting for policies Hassan signed into law as governor.

“That is not holding the line, that is toeing the line,” Smith said.

Morse said his record showed the Republican-controlled legislature forced Hassan to support their policies. He also criticized Smith for his attendance record as a state legislator in Concord, the state capital, in the 1990s.

“You probably don’t understand it because you missed 61% of the votes,” Morse said.

Morse additionally dinged Fenton, who opposed US military involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, for defending then-Sen. John Kerry’s opposition to the war in Iraq when he ran for president. “In 2004, what Bruce did was go against the Republican Party,” Morse said.

Morse also stood alone among the candidates in opposing efforts to lift legal restrictions on marijuana at the federal level.

The debate ended with Fenton saying he wouldn’t support Morse if the latter was nominated.

“I’ll vote against tyrants,” Fenton said, referring to people he thinks didn’t sufficiently oppose public-health measures aimed at stemming the spread of Covid-19. “That includes you, I’m afraid.”

Key Endorsements

Trump, a heavy hitter in Republican primaries, hasn’t endorsed any candidates in the race. An 11th-hour intervention for any candidate could swing voters in that direction. The Cook Political Report with Amy Walter rates the overall race as “lean” Democratic.

Sununu, who turned down entreaties from Washington Republicans to seek the seat in his own right, in the interview said he “might” endorse in the primary. But he ruled out supporting Bolduc.

“I don’t take him as a serious candidate, but it doesn’t mean he can’t win in November,” Sununu said. “But he would have the hardest time as any” of other Republican candidates in the general election.

Sununu also called Bolduc “the most extreme of all the candidates.” Bolduc at a previous debate raised the prospect of abolishing the FBI after its search of Trump’s home, falsely claimed the former president won re-election in 2020, and endorsed repeal of the 17th Amendment that allowed for the direct election of senators. He has also repeatedly called Sununu a “Chinese communist sympathizer.”

“And if you look at other states that have elected their most extreme primary candidate, they’re not faring well,” Sununu added, pointing to Republican nominees for Senate in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Ohio.

To contact the reporter on this story: Zach C. Cohen in Manchester, N.H., at zcohen@bloombergindustry.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Angela Greiling Keane at agreilingkeane@bloombergindustry.com; Loren Duggan at lduggan@bgov.com

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