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Granite Groaner

How Is a Conspiracy Theorist Surging in New Hampshire’s Senate Race?

The state should be a shoe-in for incumbent Democratic Senator Maggie Hassan, but her far-right opponent, Don Bolduc, is keeping the race close.

Don Bolduc
Scott Eisen/Getty Images
Republican senate nominee Don Bolduc speaks during a campaign event on October 15.

New Hampshire Republican Senate nominee Don Bolduc, who is mounting a surprisingly strong challenge to Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan, has been struggling so hard to seem reasonable. But the retired Army general just can’t resist a good conspiracy theory, even when it doesn’t involve Donald Trump.

Last year, Bolduc called the state’s popular Republican Governor Chris Sununu “a Chinese Communist sympathizer.” In an early October debate with Hassan, Bolduc concocted the notion that fleets of school buses were ferrying illegal out-of-state voters to New Hampshire. The right-wing Republican also recently embraced the bizarro fantasy that students in the heavily Republican town of Derry were self-identifying as cats, licking each other, and using litter boxes at schools instead of bathrooms. (Memo to readers: Am I really obligated to mention that the school in question has denied it?)

Somehow, though, Bolduc got through Wednesday night’s third and final debate with Hassan without going off the deep end. He had his lines down pat, denouncing almost every answer from Hassan as “career politician talk.” Even though he portrayed himself as devoutly anti-abortion when he was competing to get through the September GOP primary, Bolduc insisted with a straight face during the debate that he is such a devotee of states’ rights that he would never, ever vote for a federal law limiting abortion.

But by Thursday morning, speaking to a rally of 150 true believers at the Loudon Country Club, Bolduc had reverted to form. Ridiculing Hassan’s TV ads, Bolduc declared to applause and laughter, “She calls me an extremist. The only thing extreme about me is my common sense.” But a few minutes later, Bolduc warned that the American military under Joe Biden was ill prepared for war. The reason? Pronouns and “critical race theory.”

This is not an exaggeration. The would-be senator, who brags about his expertise in counterterrorism, said, “Ships underway stop to do pronoun training. Soldiers out in the field stop to do training. Training occupies more of their time than shoot, move, and communicate.” I kept waiting for Bolduc to claim that military sentries were now instructed by Biden to shout, “Friend or foe? And what are your pronouns?” Or for Bolduc to suggest that the only required course at West Point is studying the collective works of Ta-Nehisi Coates.

Just as mystifying as Bolduc’s theorizing are his chances in next week’s election. How did we get to the point that Bolduc, who was not too long ago reviled by many establishment Republicans in the state, is running even with Hassan, a former two-term governor, in the polls?

Begin with the reality that the only thing impressive about Hassan’s campaign is her bankroll, having raised $38 million compared to a paltry $2.2 million for Bolduc. Thursday morning, during the second hour of Good Morning America on the dominant New Hampshire TV station, WMUR, I saw four separate Hassan commercials. But late GOP Super PAC money has allowed Bolduc and the Republicans to be relatively competitive in the closing week of the campaign.

Speaking on background, New Hampshire Democrats from all wings of the party bemoan Hassan’s fizzless political persona and the rest-on-her-laurels tenor of her campaign. Her confidence seems a trifle misplaced since she won her first term in 2016 by a scant 1,000 votes. During Wednesday night’s debate, Hassan robotically repeated her talking points (“I’m proud of being named the most bipartisan senator by an independent group”) and never aggressively highlighted Bolduc’s wacko ways beyond repeatedly calling him “an extremist.”

Thursday morning, Hassan, accompanied by the state’s more popular senior Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen, embarked on a walking tour of downtown Franklin (population: 8,828). It was a lovely fall day that was missing just a single minor ingredient: voters. A walk down Central Street led to two conversations and a few friendly waves. (In fairness, this has long been an occupational hazard with campaigning in New Hampshire. I was with George H.W. Bush in 1980 when he encountered the same empty-streets problem, except that the future president attracted a bunch of decidedly swayed 11 a.m. drunks.)

A major factor in Bolduc’s rise was a cynical $3.2 million gambit by the Senate Majority PAC, affiliated with Chuck Schumer, to boost the MAGA general in the GOP primary, under the belief that Bolduc would be the weakest possible opponent for Hassan. As a result, Bolduc defeated mainstream Republican Chuck Morse by fewer than 2,000 votes. If Bolduc ends up next year vying with Alabama’s Tommy Tuberville as the most off-the-wall senator, the Democrats can rack it up under the heading, “Answered Prayers.”

What the Democrats failed to realize is that GOP party loyalty is so intense in 2022 that any nominee is welcome as long as he or she doesn’t offend the great god Trump. “Bolduc is benefiting from partisanship because now the state party is behind him,” said Chris Galdieri, a political science professor at Saint Anselm College in Manchester. “Even those who Bolduc called agents of the Chinese government are—if they haven’t buried the hatchet—at least pretending that it isn’t on the table covered with the blood of Chuck Morse.” (After calling Bolduc a “conspiracy theorist–type candidate” during the primary, the accused Chinese agent Governor Sununu, who is romping home to reelection, has now endorsed Bolduc.)

Bolduc also deserves credit for his skills at New Hampshire–style one-on-one campaigning. His manner is reminiscent of a political figure from another era: Ross Perot, the bantamweight third-party candidate of the 1990s, who exuded excessive confidence in the eternal wisdom of his every utterance.

Before he spoke in Loudon, Bolduc roamed the crowd shaking hands and asking—as if this were a cult or a dating bar—“Is this your first time?” Bizarrely enough, Bolduc has groupies. Pete Jones, a retired I.T. specialist and Vietnam veteran from Concord, said that he has heard Bolduc speak at 31 town meetings since he launched his campaign last year. “In the beginning,” Jones said, as if he were talking about the changes in the act of his favorite comedian, “he would talk about what he would do for you in Washington. Now it’s all about what’s wrong with the country.”

The expectation—which could be wrong in a state as contrary as New Hampshire—is that Hassan will eke it out in the end. Part of it is the power of her TV juggernaut, and part of it is the Democratic-leaning trajectory of a state that went for Biden by seven points in 2020. For all of Hassan’s blandness, Bolduc’s conspiracy theories and dystopian world view hopefully will be enough to spell defeat on Tuesday.