The Humdrum Wild Card in New Hampshire
Maggie Hassan may be boring, but she's actually about to become more important than Kyrsten Sinema.
In presidential politics, New Hampshire’s primary is known for its first-in-the nation status, lining up behind only Iowa to cast ballots for the leader of the free world.
For most the rest of its campaigns though, the Granite State has embraced the opposite posture, scheduling its primary at the furthest end of the calendar on the edge of fall, producing a truncated sprint to November’s general election.
That may help explain why the head of Mitch McConnell’s outside super PAC left New Hampshire off the list of prime Republican pick-up opportunities in a recent Associated Press review of the 2022 U.S. Senate landscape.
Steven Law, who directs the Senate Leadership Fund, confirmed to me that while New Hampshire is “on our target list,” there’s a primary to get through first. A primary that doesn’t occur until the second Tuesday in September. A primary that is without a marquee Republican candidate and a primary that’s been largely disregarded by the national press.
Call it last in the nation status.
It probably doesn’t help that it’s a primary which will decide who will go on to face a particularly unremarkable first-term Democratic incumbent, who lacks the mystique of Kyrsten Sinema and the media hunger of Joe Manchin.
Truth be told, the New Hampshire Senate race looks like a humdrum affair that may not pick up steam until the leaves begin to change. But in a 50-50 Senate where each race is the most important race, it’s the sleepy wild card that could sneak up on both parties while attention is committed elsewhere.
Here at #TooCloseToCall, my advice: Don’t sleep on New Hampshire.
Of all the battleground races on this year’s Senate map, no one had a closer victory in their last run than Maggie Hassan, who squeaked out a 2016 win by 1,017 votes, — or .1% — over incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte.
Now the low-wattage Democratic incumbent saddled with an approval rating in the mid-40s looks ripe for the pickings in a midterm year when Republicans are ascendant purely for the fact they aren’t in charge of our many maelstroms.
The long-held assumption by both parties was that Hassan’s opponent would be the state’s popular governor, Chris Sununu. But when Sununu flicked the upper chamber the bird, opting to stay put in a governorship of the 42nd most populous state that he can parlay into additional executive-get-shit-done experience toward a future run for president, Republicans didn’t seem prepared for a Plan B.
“Quite honestly, it would’ve been a lot easier,” says Dave Carney, the longtime New Hampshire Republican consultant. “He has name ID. He has a record. He would’ve raised a lot of money. All the national groups would’ve been on board immediately because he was a known quantity.”
But Carney says on the day Sununu announced his decision against a run, the governor picked up the phone and called Chuck Morse and asked him to get in.
Morse, the longest serving state Senate president in New Hampshire history, who Carney is working for now, obliged. While the governor hasn’t formally endorsed him, Carney intimated that a fleet of New Hampshire Republican pols will be signing on with the 61-year-old Morse, who once described himself as “quiet but effective.”
But Carney also acknowledged that without Sununu, Republicans are essentially starting from scratch. That includes Morse, who registered just a 12% favorable rating in one January poll. It’s not that voters inherently dislike him, they just couldn’t pick him out in a line-up.
“He has 100% name ID of everyone who has ever been in the state capitol,” Carney says. “Voters don’t know him. He’s under no illusions that he’s starting from a blank slate.”
Even less known to the vast public: Kevin Smith, a local town manager who has been active in New Hampshire politics for decades. Smith, who has coined the clever catchphrase “Maggie Hasn’t,” also climbed into the contest in January following Sununu’s decision.
Smith, an ambitious longtime activist and formidable retail politician who previously served a single term in the state legislature and ran unsuccessfully for governor, is attempting to position himself as the vibrant outsider against the staid Morse.
“Sen. Morse has been in elected office for the past 20 years, much like Sen. Hassan,” says Seb Rougemont, Smith’s campaign manager. “[Kevin] just has a of energy…He’s just hands-down the best candidate on the stump and on the trail in the state in this primary right now.”
Morse, who phoned me on Friday afternoon from his farm and garden business in Atkinson, New Hampshire, unsurprisingly and swiftly rejected the charge that he’s a career politician noting, that New Hampshire legislators only work-part time …
“I’ve been working for $125 a year so I’m no politician. I’m a small business owner who goes to Concord, does his job up there and comes back and works for a living. It’s not a profession.”
… and then without missing a beat, he raised his “record of accomplishment” as a veteran legislator as the characteristic that easily sets him apart from his opponents.
This will be Morse’s utmost challenge in the primary: Shedding the label of a grizzled gray-bearded pol in the muck while tying himself to Sununu’s economic record of lowering taxes and building a healthy rainy day fund.
Let’s be clear, Morse is the establishMENT candidate here (oh the horror!) But that could very well be his saving grace in New Hampshire, which historically rejects the conservative insurgent in favor of folks like John Sununu Jr. and Kelly Ayotte. (Remember Governor Ovide Lamontagne? No, you don’t.)
But if “outsider” is defined by the candidate most likely to fall outside the traditional established political apparatus, then it’s a third candidate who has earned that status and is guaranteed to keep things spicy: Don Bolduc, who literally announced his candidacy in the hazy hours after Election Day 2020 (if indeed, the 2020 election. has ended for you?).
Bolduc, a retired general who served three decades in the Army and logged many tours in Afghanistan, lost a 2020 GOP U.S. Senate primary to take on Jeanne Shaheen by 8 points. But that experience in front of voters and his early launch suddenly handed him an unexpected leg up, once Sununu crushed Republican dreams.
Bolduc was always prepping to run as the insurgent against Sununu. But after Sununu passed on the Senate chance, instead of tipping his cap, he brandished the rhetorical knife, trashing the governor after it was clear he would no longer be his opponent. He claimed it was he who pushed the three-term Governor Sununu out of the race. As a cherry on top, he dubbed Sununu “a “Chinese Communist sympathizer” whose family business “supports terrorism.”
So yes, Bolduc is going to be the bull in the China shop in this race, and the one that those establishment Rs in D.C. will most fret about as the nominee, even if they pretend otherwise.
As you’ve read here before, I’m not one to believe money is everything, but Bolduc’s fundraising has been downright measly (he reported a mere $57K on hand to end the year.) But he’s accrued air time on Fox News during the Afghanistan withdrawal and the Russian war on Ukraine to flex his military credentials. Former President Donald Trump sent Bolduc a complimentary note after one of Bolduc’s Fox appearances.
Bolduc plans to make the Mar-a-Lago pilgrimage in the coming weeks to massage Trump’s affection for military men, but former Trump aide Corey Lewandowski has an ongoing feud with Bolduc which could complicate the path to an endorsement. (Morse has no relationship with Trump and was a Jeb! Bush backer in 2016.)
Rick Wiley, a national Republican consultant who joined the Bolduc campaign in December to professionalize a largely rudderless operation , only agreed to speak with me off the record, so I am unable to report his assessment of the race.
So is Bolduc the front-runner? Marginally at this early moment, says internal polling. But is Morse the eventual front-runner in waiting once the GOP circles its wagons?
Thirdly, is the field even completely set? New Hampshire’s filing deadline to run in the September primary isn’t until June 10, meaning there’s a lot of time to play with here.
The Morse, Smith and Bolduc campaigns haven’t detected any chatter of a surprise addition and Law conveyed he’s satisfied with the options — but three months is a helluva long time. And the six-month window until the primary provides ample time for many twists and turns.
But at least one Republican, who has also run for U.S. Senate in the state, is saying the quiet part out loud: This is not where Republicans want to be, and Sununu’s to blame.
“I think that Maggie Hassan has a big leg up. Regrettably, because of the decision that Governor Sununu made so late in the game, it didn't give people an opportunity to either raise money or establish their campaigns, and they're on the back foot. Number one, number two, I think that, you know, I thank the general, General Bolduc for his service. But I don't believe that he is U.S. Senate material. I don't think that he has a complete and full grasp of all the issues that are that are critical. And frankly, he said things to me and I've been around him when he says things that I find disqualifying.
That’s Bill Binnie, a wealthy investment executive who considered his own GOP campaign, speaking on the “Good Morning New Hampshire” radio program earlier this week. Remember “disqualifying” if Bolduc is the nominee; Democratic ad-makers sure will.
Binnie, in the interview, goes on to say he’s with Morse, “clearly the most qualified” candidate who “will ultimately win” the primary, but that Bolduc is beginning with a lead that is 2-1 or 3-1. That means a tricky six-month slog ahead for Morse, as Binnie suggests:
“And whether or not you know, Senator Morse can can raise enough money to get his name out there is a question. I do think that by the time, as often happens, the primary rolls around the voters, especially the primary voters, know, know, everybody and what they're about, right? The problem is that that Senator Hassan will have so much money raised that she will be able to impugn and paint such a negative picture of whether it's Morse or Bolduc, whoever, that you won't even recognize that person, they enter the general race, which is a shame.”
Publicly, Democrats view this all as a hapless B-team striving to get invited to the prom. But in some years, B-list is good enough. If the environment stays as rocky for Democrats as its been during the first quarter of 2022, C-list might even squeak by. Hassan knows herself a win by 1,000 votes is still a win.
And yes, just like six to seven other races on the map, the ultimate winner here will be integral to deciding which party controls the Senate in 2023. It’s just that most people aren’t paying much attention to a state accustomed to unlimited attention.
“If we get a decent candidate in the primary, we’ll win. Biden’s sucking wind, Hassan’s tied to him at the hip,” says Carney, who ripped into Hassan with particular relish.
“She is weak and has no personality. She’s completely detached. She’s pathetic. She’s a terrible speaker. She has no operation, it’s all just based on the Democratic state party,” he went on.
“The only person in this race who matches that description is Chuck Morse,” retorted Kevin Donohoe, a spokesman for Hassan’s campaign. “Dave’s whole cowboy consultant routine might work in Texas but I think the last time he won a competitive race in New Hampshire was before I was born so I wouldn’t take anything he says too seriously.”
Boom. Here we go. Points to both of these gentleman for the zest and creativity in this volley.
See! Maybe New Hampshire won’t end up as humdrum as it looks at the moment.
Someone just needed to light a little fire.