After final primary losses, a wounded GOP establishment looks to November

The final primaries before the November midterms dealt a closing blow to the Republican establishment, with New Hampshire voters rejecting House and Senate candidates backed by state and federal GOP leadership in favor of hard-right conservatives who used them as foils in their campaigns.

Tuesday’s results concluded six months of expensive and fractious nominating contests that reflected the influence of Donald Trump and his polarizing movement — even in congressional races like in New Hampshire, where he did not make an endorsement. GOP primary voters often picked standard-bearers who embraced his false election claims, emulated his combative style and promoted his ideas.

On Wednesday, Republican Don Bolduc, an election denier who has raised the prospect of abolishing the FBI, advanced to a showdown with Sen. Maggie Hassan (DN.H.) in the fall, withstanding a $5 million advertising onslaught from a group with ties to Senate Republican leaders. Republican Robert Burns, who opposes abortion rights, prevailed in one House primary over a candidate backed by Gov. Chris Sununu (R), while ex-Trump aide Karoline Leavitt defeated House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s preferred candidate in another.

Now comes the reckoning in New Hampshire — where all three races feature vulnerable Democrats — and beyond for Republicans. On the whole, they have put forth a diverse group of nominees, including women and candidates of color and some moderates, all in winnable races, particularly in the House. Gaining just five more of those seats, and one in the Senate, would give Republicans control of Congress for the second half of President Biden’s term.

But the struggle to reach the point has exacted financial and political tolls on the party. In New Hampshire, party leaders wasted millions of dollars and expended considerable political capital trying to defeat candidates who triumphed.

“You sent the biggest signal to the establishment tonight,” said Bolduc, a retired Brigadier general, at his victory party in Hampton. Midway through his speech, Bolduc held a small shield with arrows sticking out, to symbolize the “arrows” he’d taken from a multimillion-dollar GOP ad campaign.

On the trail, Bolduc had called Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer” and said “Trump won” the 2020 presidential election. Leavitt, a 25-year old Trump White House press team veteran who’d be the youngest woman ever elected to Congress, called the Biden-Trump race “rigged.” Burns, an ex-county official nominated in the state’s other House seat, emphasized his own antiabortion views and beat a moderate mayor who called himself “pro-choice.”

In interviews after the vote, Republicans said all three races remained winnable in November. Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel will join the state party for a candidate “unity breakfast” on Thursday, designed to raise money for the ticket and heal wounds from the lengthy primary.

According to the candidates’ pre-primary filings, Hassan entered September with $7.4 million, Rep. Chris Pappas (DN.H.) had $2.3 million, and Rep. Ann Kuster (DN.H.) had $2.9 million. Their opponents entered the month with $83,000, $573,000, and $57,000, respectively.

“Once again, Kevin McCarthy’s PAC spent millions of dollars to lose,” said Rep. Sean Patrick Maloney (DN.Y.), the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “He’s now stuck with two MAGA extremists who would ban abortion nationwide.”

PACs linked to McCarthy (R-Calif.) and to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) spent nearly $10 million to help candidates who fell short on Tuesday, signaling what the party thought of these nominees — and what the party’s conservative base thought of their beltway leadership.

Campaign ads from White Mountain PAC, a pop-up group with a treasurer linked to McConnell, warned that Bolduc had “crazy ideas” and wouldn’t be able to unseat Hassan, who is seeking a second term after winning the closest Senate race of 2016. A 30-second spot from the Republican Main Street Partnership attacked Leavitt as a “woke” candidate who had been “mooching off her parents.”

Both campaigns, tellingly, portrayed the insurgent candidates as insufficiently pro-Trump, a nod to vote sentiment in the state. Bolduc and Leavitt responded by bashing the “swamp” for trying to stop them, and promising to stand up to McConnell and McCarthy when they got to Washington.

“Any of our people have the ability, with the right assets, to beat their Democratic opponents, because that’s how bad they are and how bad things are,” said New Hampshire GOP chair Stephen Stepanek in an interview before the polls closed. “The question is, how much support are we going to be getting at the national level?”

On Wednesday, national Republicans said they remained committed to wins in New Hampshire. After state Senate President Chuck Morse had conceded to Bolduc and 2020 nominee Matt Mowers conceded to Leavitt, Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.) who chairs the National Republican Senatorial Committee (NRSC), toldCNN that the party was “going to spend money” to try to defeat Hassan.

Chris Hartline, the communications director for the NRSC, added that voters would be “ready to vote for a Republican who will stand up to Joe Biden and his agenda that’s hurting Granite Staters,” and that Hassan remained “the most vulnerable incumbent Democrat” in the country, even after spending millions of dollars on TV ads to rebuild her support.

The McConnell-linked Senate Leadership Fund has reserved more than $23 million in TV ad time for the New Hampshire race and did not announce any change to that plan after Morse conceded.

Hassan’s first post-primary ad, which began running Wednesday, linked Bolduc to McConnell and warned a Republican majority would “push for a nationwide ban on abortion.” The day of the primary, Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (RS.C.) had rolled out a 15-week abortion ban with limited exceptions; McConnell told reporters that “most members of my conference” did not support it.

Democrats said Wednesday that the primaries had widened their path to keeping the majority, after the Supreme Court’s summer abortion ruling and a flurry of legislative wins in Washington had improved the party’s standing.

But before Bolduc’s win, Republicans were already strategizing around Senate nominees who have lagged Democrats in funds raised and have trailed the party’s other 2022 nominees in polls — including Herschel Walker in Georgia, Blake Masters in Arizona, Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, and JD Vance in Ohio. Both major parties are still spending heavily in those races, and Democrats pushed back against the idea that right-wing GOP nominees meant guaranteed wins in November.

“None of these races will be easy,” said New Hampshire Democratic Party chair Ray Buckley, referring to the re-election of Hassan, Pappas and Kuster. “Nothing should ever be taken for granted, and our candidates and grass roots will work like hell to win.”

In New Hampshire, Hassan has been critical of the Biden administration’s handling of the US-Mexico border, but she did not face a serious challenge to her left on Tuesday. Talking to reporters on Saturday, after launching a canvass with Pappas, Hassan said the Biden administration “took too long to really begin to tackle inflation,” and that she would “continue to stand up” to her president over his handling of the border and drug trafficking.

Republican candidates have not gotten the same space to criticize their party’s leader. In New Hampshire, Mowers was endorsed by Trump in 2020 and had worked for his 2016 campaign, Leavitt attacked him for not going far enough in questioning Biden’s defeat. In the other House race, Burns emphasized that he had endorsed Trump in 2016 when many other Republicans balked.

“I think there’s more swamp creatures — that’s what I call them — then I realized,” said Catherine Latino, a New Hampshire voter who joined Leavitt at a rally with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) last week. “Trump is still resonating.”

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