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Primary season concludes with bitterly contested GOP races in New Hampshire

LACONIA, N.H. — Six months of bitter and expensive Republican primaries will come to an end on Tuesday with a trio of contests in New Hampshire pitting candidates aligned with GOP state and congressional leaders against provocative far-right rivals seen in both parties as less electable.

The year’s final primaries will be decided in Rhode Island, Delaware and here in the Granite State, where the stakes for November’s battles for control of the House and Senate are highest. For Republicans, the finale to primary season is in line with how it has unfolded in many other states: with divisive intraparty fights and a last-minute burst of campaign spending from both parties designed to tilt the outcome.

One missing factor: former president Donald Trump, who through Sunday had not made an endorsement in any of the three most closely watched contests. His absence had left the candidates to make their own sales pitches to his supporters, blurring some of the ideological battle lines.

While President Biden won New Hampshire by seven points, the competitive primaries have been influenced by the right, with Republicans venting about GOP congressional leaders, restrictions imposed during the pandemic and the vote count in the 2020 election.

The Republican primary for U.S. Senate is seen as a significant factor in the larger battle for control of the upper chamber next year. The race includes retired U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, who has said that he “concurred with Trump’s assessment” of the election, meaning his false claims that he was the winner, and co-signed a letter raising questions about the vote. Bolduc has also endorsed closing the Department of Education, and he asked whether America should “get rid of” the FBI in the wake of last month’s search of Mar-a-Lago.

“I have taken the arrows from my fellow Republican candidates, and I’m standing strong,” Bolduc told supporters at a Saturday afternoon town hall here. “When God made Bolducs, he made oak trees, not willow trees!”

New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse (R) is opposing Bolduc. Morse is supported by Republican Gov. Chris Sununu, who has called Bolduc a “conspiracy theorist.” At a campaign stop in Rochester, Morse defended the integrity of the 2020 election in the state, but he did not oppose the effort by most House Republicans, and some Senate Republicans, to challenge Biden’s electoral votes from Arizona and Pennsylvania.

“In these other states where we were hearing things — this comes down to people going in and looking at it and getting things done,” Morse said. “I’m not against the legislature doing that.”

A University of New Hampshire Survey Center poll conducted late last month showed Bolduc leading Morse 43 percent to 22 percent in the Republican primary, with other candidates in the single digits.

National Republicans tried and failed last year to convince Sununu to run against Democratic Sen. Maggie Hassan; after he declined, he urged the 61-year-old Morse to run, according to both men. Last week, when Trump called Sununu about the race, the governor said that he made a pitch for Morse, and Morse met with Trump to discuss a possible endorsement.

“I answered his questions, and he told me what he believed,” Morse said in an interview after touring local businesses in Rochester. “He certainly has some strong opinions.”

An outside group whose treasurer has past ties to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the National Republican Senatorial Committee put $4.6 million behind ads to help Morse. That is three times as much as Morse himself has been able to raise for his campaign, worrying Republicans, who have watched Hassan raise more than $30 million and go on the air with early TV ads.

National Democrats, apparently wagering Bolduc would be easier for Hassan to defeat in November, have spent millions to boost Bolduc. Senate Majority PAC, a group aligned with Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), has spent $3.2 million on ads that call Morse “another sleazy politician” who is being propped up by “Mitch McConnell’s Washington establishment.”

“What a sign of weakness,” Sununu said of the Democratic meddling, after greeting voters at a weekend seafood festival. “I think it’s unethical, frankly. I think it should be banned, somehow, in the political system.”

Three weeks ago, according to the candidates’ final pre-primary campaign finance reports, Hassan had $7.4 million left to spend; Morse had less than $600,000. The Senate Leadership Fund, the chief McConnell-aligned outside spending group, has reserved $23 million in ad spending for the general election.

Public polling, which had found Hassan struggling in a potential race against Sununu, has found her ahead of either Morse or Bolduc, but below the 50 percent mark — often a danger sign for incumbents. On Saturday, after talking with Democratic volunteers in Dover, Hassan declined to take a position on the Democratic spending for Bolduc.

“I can’t control what outside groups do,” Hassan said before criticizing Morse as a threat to abortion rights, should he be sent to Washington. Morse helped usher in a more restrictive abortion law in New Hampshire, though the procedure remains legal, with limitations, in the state.

While Morse has promised to complete building “Trump’s wall” on the U.S.-Mexico border, and has echoed Trump’s evidence-free claim that the FBI search of his Mar-a-Lago estate was a political attack, both his rivals and Democratic meddlers have accused him of being a party loyalist who would undermine Trump’s “Make America Great Again” agenda by siding with Republicans such as McConnell.

“You’re a rubber stamp,” cryptocurrency investor Bruce Fenton told Morse in a summer debate hosted by NHJournal. “You’d go down [to Washington] and vote the way they tell you to vote.”

In debates, other Republicans have spent less time attacking Bolduc, who never stopped running after his 2020 Senate race loss, than they have criticizing Morse over issues such as the state’s 2020 covid-19 restrictions.

Sununu, who said he had waited to endorse Morse until voters were finally tuning in, called him the Republican with the best shot to beat Hassan. But if Bolduc prevails Tuesday, he is ready to endorse him. “Look, primaries are primaries,” Sununu said. “Go back to 2016 and all the things that were said about Donald Trump. At the end of the day, it’s about what’s best for the country.”

New Hampshire’s September primary has frequently caused headaches for the out-of-power party. While incumbents build their reelection campaigns, challengers have seven weeks to refill their war chests and reunite their voters.

That was a source of Republican headaches in 2020, when Bolduc narrowly lost the party’s U.S. Senate nomination and refused to endorse the winner, accusing national Republicans, including the Trump campaign, of “rigging” the race against him. It’s a crucial element of the Democratic strategy this year, as Hassan, as well as Reps. Chris Pappas and Annie Kuster face voters who have frequently punished the incumbent president’s party in midterm elections.

In the 1st Congressional District, which is represented by Pappas and encompasses the Atlantic seacoast and the conservative Boston exurbs, 33-year old Matt Mowers has been endorsed by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) as a “tough and tested conservative.” A GOP operative and former Trump campaign aide who narrowly lost to Pappas in 2020, Mowers is supported by the main outside group aligned with House GOP leadership, the Congressional Leadership Fund.

That didn’t stop Mowers’s opponents from pounding him over his ties to Washington and for casting a vote in New Jersey’s 2016 state primaries after voting in New Hampshire’s 2016 presidential primary. (Mowers had moved to New Hampshire as a presidential campaign operative for then-Gov. Chris Christie.)

Karoline Leavitt, a 25-year old former staffer for Rep. Elise Stefanik (R-N.Y.) and the Trump White House’s press shop, has spent nearly $1.5 million and campaigned with conservative stars such as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.), portraying Mowers as a D.C. “swamp” creature.

“The establishment is so afraid that I’m going to beat their handpicked puppet ,” Leavitt told voters at a Thursday rally with Cruz in Londonderry.

Leavitt has campaigned as a New Hampshire native who, despite her own endorsement from Stefanik, is not beholden to D.C. Republicans. She has echoed Trump’s false claims that the 2020 election was rigged for Biden. Mowers has said there were “irregularities” in the count.

In an interview, Mowers dismissed the criticism he has received. “They’re just using talking points,” he said. He added: “It’s a few days out from an election — folks who are down in polls will say a lot of crazy stuff.”

While Trump has not weighed in on the race, Mowers has sent mailers to voters highlighting that the former president endorsed his 2020 run against Pappas.

Polling has found Mowers ahead, with Leavitt close behind, and other Republicans are hoping to take advantage of the fracas. Another candidate, Gail Huff Brown, a former TV news anchor and the wife of Scott Brown, a former senator of Massachusetts, has run ads promising to support New Hampshire’s abortion law “and the choice it guarantees.” Democrats point out that the law added restrictions that the state never had before, and plan to run against any Republican as a potential vote to ban abortion.

On Saturday, Pappas predicted that the bruising primary would take a toll on his eventual opponent. “Whoever the nominee is, they’re certainly going to be banged up by this process,” Pappas said.

In the 2nd District, which is represented by Kuster, a fierce Republican primary is also being decided. Sununu has endorsed Keene Mayor George Hansel. As the Republican mayor of a town that backed Biden by 40 points, Hansel has shown an ability to appeal to Democratic voters.

“I am the only one that can win in November, the only one Kuster is scared of,” Hansel said at a recent debate hosted by WMUR.

Former Hillsborough County treasurer Robert Burns has gotten help from a Democratic PAC, with some seeing him as easier to defeat in November. At the debate, Burns accused Hansel of governing as a liberal, attacking a pro-immigrant “sanctuary city” resolution passed by the city council and characterizing Hansel’s appearance at a 2020 racial justice rally as “marching with BLM [Black Lives Matter].”

Sununu, Burns said in an interview, had backed a weak Republican who couldn’t unite their party. “His candidates are going to lose, and he needs to get over it,” Burns said.

State Rep. Tim Baxter, who is endorsed by Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and is running in the 1st Congressional District, said in an interview that his opponents were “fake MAGA candidates.” Any Republican who wouldn’t rule out voting for McCarthy for leader would, he said, “stab a new president, with an America First agenda, in the back.”

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