Republicans are cobbling together an 11th-hour effort to blunt the rise of a controversial candidate in New Hampshire's GOP Senate primary Tuesday, fearing his nomination could take a marquee race off the table, hurting the party's chances of taking back control of the U.S. Senate.
After months of handwringing over Don Bolduc, a retired Army brigadier general and 2020 Senate candidate, Republicans are trying to throw roadblocks in his way just before the Sept. 13 primary. If fruitful, the efforts would likely help state Senate President Chuck Morse, the only other primary candidate notching notable polling support, though it's unclear if there's enough time to close what some Republicans say is an uncomfortably large polling gap.
And Democrats, meanwhile, are intervening to surreptitiously boost Bolduc, a sign the party views him as the weakest candidate to run against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan.
"We're seeing right now a break-glass moment from both sides. We're seeing national Republicans put an urgent focus on promoting what they view as the most electable candidate in a general election. National Democrats have also come in trying to put their finger on the scale," said Jeff Grappone, a GOP strategist with extensive experience in New Hampshire who isn't working with any candidate in the race.
"Essentially, we're seeing both national parties to come in and try to shape the race on the terms that they want. Clearly, Republicans are concerned about Gen. Bolduc's appeal in the general election," he said.
Some Republicans have voiced concerns for months over Bolduc, warning that he could morph a top Senate race into one virtually out of reach.
Bolduc has made headlines for years with outlandish remarks, including calling Republican Gov. Chris Sununu a "Chinese Communist sympathizer," saying U.S. forces should "get in there on the ground" in Ukraine, pushing for the repeal of the 17th Amendment codifying direct popular election of U.S. senators and accusing then-President Donald Trump of rigging the 2020 Senate primary he lost by endorsing an opponent.
On top of that, Bolduc has proved to be an anemic fundraiser, hauling in under $600,000 by Aug. 24. Hassan, meanwhile, raised $4.3 million just from July 1 to Aug. 24, an impressive fundraising advantage in an expensive cycle that could ease Hassan's path to reelection.
"We've heard several national strategists say that if Don Bolduc wins the nomination, then every dime that has been reserved in advertising will be pulled on September 14," said Mike Dennehy, a New Hampshire GOP strategist advising Kevin Smith, another primary candidate with low poll numbers.
"It's very difficult for it to be competitive with Don Bolduc as the Republican nominee."
Still, polling has shown Bolduc as the primary frontrunner, with a University of New Hampshire poll showing him up 21 points over Morse.
Those figures have lit a fire under Republicans in Washington and Concord who are mobilizing to boost Morse at Bolduc's expense.
White Mountain PAC, a super PAC that was created only last month, dumped millions of dollars into an ad reservation heading into the primary, a buy that Grappone said "puts [Morse] in the game" and includes including at least one ad slamming Bolduc's "crazy ideas."
Sununu, who remains overwhelmingly popular in New Hampshire, also made a late endorsement for Morse, praising him in a news conference as the "best candidate" to defeat Hassan and saying he's "calling all Republicans to join me."
Republicans are also trying to lure Trump to get involved in the race -- so long as it's not for Bolduc.
A Trump endorsement for Bolduc would go a long way to locking up the primary for him, and he voiced openness to such an imprimatur last month, telling a radio host Bolduc is a "strong guy."
Sununu spoke with Trump to encourage him to play a role in the primary, a Sununu spokesperson told a local newspaper. Morse also met with Trump at the former president's golf course in Bedminster, New Jersey, last week, according to Dave Carney, a consultant for Morse, and a separate source familiar with the matter.
"Yes, there is a move to stop a Bolduc endorsement," the source familiar with the matter said. "Bolduc is a loser and can't win the general."
Nevertheless, Bolduc is plowing ahead, insisting that he's the outsider GOP primary voters are seeking.
"We need an outsider in DC to clean up their mess and that race starts on September 14th," his campaign said in a statement, referencing Hassan and President Joe Biden.
Yet, Democrats are saying with their wallets that they agree with Republicans that Bolduc is the easiest candidate for Hassan to beat in purple New Hampshire.
Senate Majority PAC, Senate Democrats' main outside group with ties to Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., released a late ad tying Morse to Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., a famous Trump target, in an apparent effort to put more distance between him and a GOP primary electorate that largely remains in thrall with the former president.
"Why would Republicans go with something that is uncertain rather than go with something that is certain?" Carney said in an interview Wednesday. "One thing is for certain: Democrats and Republicans outside of New Hampshire agree…that Chuck Morse is the guy, the guy to stop and the guy to help."
"Of course, it's urgent, because the election is next week, and it's 140 hours away," he added when asked about the flurry of activity around the primary. "There's only so much time left."
The late jockeying is also taking place over the context of the overall fight for the Senate, which is currently split 50-50 -- meaning any one race can decide party control.
"It's the 51st vote in the Senate," Carney said. "So, I think it is important to the whole country, not just New Hampshire."
Yet, even if Bolduc's detractors are successful in dragging an alternative over the finish line, the GOP nominee could face headwinds trying to unite a divided Republican Party.
While the candidates' stances do not fit into neat ideological lines, the brutal campaign and its related coverage have often cast Bolduc as aligned with Trump's flank of the GOP and Morse as more of a moderate. Bridging that gap would be crucial for either candidate, though they only have a short runway to do so between the primary and Election Day in November.
"Whoever the Republican nominee is, they've got their work cut out for them because they only have a month and a couple of weeks…before the general election. So, they've got to sprint between the 13th and the general election, to pivot the campaign," said Andrew Smith, the director of the University of New Hampshire's Survey Center.
"Trump and his supporters, as we've seen in other places, are more than willing to cut off their nose to spite their face if they don't get their particular candidate nominated," he said. "And I think there may be moderate Republicans that are willing to do the same thing in the case of Don Bolduc."