The GOP is rallying behind candidates once considered risky

By Steve Peoples | Associated Press

ATKINSON, NH — New Hampshire’s Republican governor described Don Bolduc as a “conspiracy theorist” just two months ago. But now, a week before Election Day, Gov. Chris Sununu has pledged his support. And the leader of the GOP campaign to take back the US Senate stood by Bolduc over the weekend, calling him a “true patriot.”

“I’m here for one reason, and that’s to make sure that Don Bolduc is the next U.S. senator,” Rick Scott, the Florida senator and chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told dozens of voters Sunday in Atkinson, New Hampshire , community center.

“Here’s a man who is a true patriot,” Scott said as he introduced Bolduc, a retired Army general. “He served his country. He believes. He is interested.

The dynamic in New Hampshire reflects an emboldened GOP’s growing confidence in candidates that party leaders thought were essentially unelectable — or at least seriously flawed — just weeks or months ago. But approaching the final full week of the 2022 midterm elections, Republican leaders are betting that anti-Democratic political winds will shift what Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell himself has called “quality of candidates” problems in his own party.

Republican Senate candidates from Arizona to Georgia and from North Carolina to New Hampshire are grappling with revelations about their personal lives, fringe positions and weak fundraising. Yet they may be in position to win on November 8. Leaders of both parties believe Republicans are poised to take a majority in the House of Representatives, with control of the Senate also looming.

At the same time, Republicans are waging competitive battles for governorships in states such as Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada and Wisconsin.

As Republican optimism grew, Democrats were forced to take a defensive stance with voters eager to punish the party that controls Washington for rising inflation, crime concerns and general pessimism about the country’s direction. Hampered by weak approval ratings, Democratic front-runner President Joe Biden has avoided many of the nation’s most competitive battlegrounds for fear of doing more harm than good to his party.

Biden will spend the night before Election Day at a rally in deep blue Maryland. He will travel this week to New Mexico and California, two Democratic strongholds where Republicans threaten to make gains.

Former President Barack Obama rallied voters in Michigan and Wisconsin over the weekend.

“I understand why people are concerned,” Obama said in Detroit. “Humiliation is not an option.”

First lady Jill Biden, not her husband, campaigned with New Hampshire Sen. Maggie Hassan on Saturday. The first lady called the New Hampshire Senate race “a huge race” and encouraged volunteers to “dig a little deeper” and “work a little harder” in the coming days.

In an interview moments before taking the stage with the first lady, Hassan declined to say whether she wanted Biden to run for a second term when asked.

“How about we just survive 2022?” Hassan said. “It’s obviously his decision.”

The GOP’s embrace of risky Senate candidates has been playing out for months in states like Georgia, where $60 million will be spent on television advertising to benefit Republican Herschel Walker until Election Day. This support comes even as Walker faces reports of abuse and mental health issues from his past and more recent allegations that he paid at least two women to have abortions. Walker denied the abortion allegations.

The GOP is also rallying behind Arizona Senate candidate Blake Masters, a so-called election denier deemed deeply flawed by GOP leaders earlier in the year. Washington Republicans aggressively recruited outgoing governor Doug Ducey to run for the Senate, but Ducey declined.

Masters, a 36-year-old venture capitalist, is now the GOP’s only hope to defeat incumbent Sen. Mark Kelly, a retired astronaut. Ignoring Masters’ embrace of former President Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election, former Vice President Mike Pence recently campaigned for the Arizona Republican, calling him “one of the brightest stars in the GOP.”

In North Carolina, local Republicans have raised concerns about the strength of Trump-backed Republican Senate candidate Ted Budd. The congressman, who is struggling to galvanize Republican voters in his campaign against Democrat Cheri Beasley, a former state Supreme Court chief justice. But in the past week, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Ted Cruz of Texas have campaigned with him.

It was much the same in Ohio, where local officials came out against Trump’s preferred Senate candidate, JD Vance, a venture capitalist who promoted the former president’s campaign lies and was underrated as a fundraiser.

Stephen Lowe, a top McConnell ally who runs a McConnell-backed super PAC known as the Senate Leadership Fund, says the obvious flaws in the candidates — including those who opposed McConnell himself — are far less important than the ultimate goal of party this fall: a winner.

“At the end of the day, our focus is on winning the majority. And I feel like a lot of those concerns have faded into the background as we work toward that goal,” Law said in an interview.

Still, the Senate Leadership Fund transferred the roughly $6 million it planned to invest in the New Hampshire Senate race to Pennsylvania in recent days, suggesting it is essentially giving up on Bolduc. But just days later, the NRSC invested another $1 million — and Scott, its chairman, campaigned with Bolduc, sending an unequivocal message that the GOP was behind the controversial New Hampshire Republican.

Over the weekend, a conservative group affiliated with the conservative Legacy Fund invested another $1 million in Bolduc’s bid.

Bolduc, meanwhile, continues to fight Washington leadership in both parties while running an aggressive retail campaign in New Hampshire. In a brief interview outside Windham City Hall on Saturday, Bolduc said he would work to replace McConnell and other Republican leaders if elected.

“Leadership on both sides have drugged us into the mess we see ourselves in. I’m the only candidate saying that,” Bolduc said. “This is a Republican problem. This is a Democrat problem.
At City Hall, one Bolduc supporter mistakenly believed Bolduc supported abortion rights. She tried to clarify his position as he shook her hand before taking the stage.

“I have a question,” said the voter, who declined to give his name. “Are you pro-choice?”

“I’m pro-life,” Bolduc replied.

He added that he would not support a federal ban on abortion and would instead prefer to let the issue be decided at the state level. That’s despite telling Republicans in Dover, New Hampshire, earlier this year: “I’m not going to vote against pro-life. I respect life from beginning to end.”

Sununu, the New Hampshire governor whom Washington Republicans tried and failed to recruit for the Senate race, addressed his change of heart on Bolduc during a Sunday appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” In August, Sununu dismissed Bolduc as a “frivolous candidate” and a “conspiracy theory extremist.”

“Don and I didn’t see eye to eye during the primary,” Sununu said. “But again, I’m going to support the Republican candidate because the issues that people are voting on are inflation, gas prices, heating oil, which are skyrocketing here in New Hampshire and are of great concern.”

Sununu was not asked about Bolduc’s repeated allegations of voter fraud in New Hampshire.

Bolduc has softened his tone since winning the GOP primary, but during a debate last week he falsely claimed voters were bussed into the state to vote illegally. And when asked about the integrity of the 2020 election at City Hall earlier this month, he said, “I can’t say whether it’s stolen or not.”

Trump endorsed Bolduc early Monday, despite noting Bolduc’s failure on election legitimacy and repeating false claims of election fraud in New Hampshire.

“He was a loud and proud ‘election denier,’ a big reason he won the nomination, but then he recanted,” Trump wrote on Truth Social. “He’s since come back, at least by bus, but that’s just a small part of the election fraud in NH.”

Meanwhile, Hassan, a former Democratic governor with a huge fundraising lead, acknowledged that Bolduc is running a competitive campaign.

“Don Bolduc has worked very hard to hide his extremism from the people of New Hampshire,” she said. “He’s the most extreme U.S. Senate candidate we’ve seen in modern New Hampshire history.”

Michigan Sen. Gary Peters, who heads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, predicted that Democrats would retain their narrow majority in the Senate because of the stark contrast in the quality of candidates.

“Republicans have prepared characters who are extreme and not ready for — not just prime time, but anytime,” Peters said. “There is no red wave. And we will win. But these will be close races.”

Associated Press writers Gary Robertson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and Bill Barrow in Atlanta contributed to this report.

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