Franklin, N.H. — Things are getting prickly in the Granite State.
Republican Don Bolduc, a retired Army general who has espoused conspiracy theories about vaccines, the 2020 presidential election and cat litter boxes in schools, of all things, is threatening to pull off a major upset against incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) that could hand the GOP a key victory in the battle for Senate control.
“The momentum is ours,” Bolduc proclaimed at a campaign stop on Thursday after polls showed him gaining on Hassan, who is facing inflation-driven political headwinds.
A surprise GOP win here would serve as an early bellwether for races across the country before votes are even counted in larger battleground states like Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Nevada.
Democrats are taking nothing for granted in the final stretch before Election Day. Hassan is tag-teaming appearances with fellow New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen and has enlisted progressive star power from neighboring Massachusetts in the form of Elizabeth Warren to energize young people. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) are scheduled to make stops this weekend.
Hassan got a handle on the thorny issues of the day with Shaheen at a store that sells hedgehogs and hedgehog accessories on Thursday in downtown Franklin, a small town striving to recover in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. The owner proudly dubbed it “the only hedgehog store in the country,” a claim that was crying out for a senatorial inspection.
Taking delicate care to avoid its sharp quills, Hassan cradled an adorable black-and-white hedgehog in her hands and talked up her bipartisan bona fides as well as the federal spending she’s helped steer for businesses and new infrastructure in New Hampshire.
“We’ve worked to get some federal funds here that’s kind of like the seed money that then helps projects come together,” she told a customer who recognized her.
The woman thanked Hassan for stopping by before noting she was a Republican who saw the senator’s ads on television. Democrats have blanketed the airwaves with attacks against Bolduc over abortion, his election denial and the future of Social Security. He’s been vastly outspent, relying on outside groups to help him in the final days of the race
“I’m sorry about that,” Hassan responded, referring to the TV onslaught.
“Hopefully that will be over soon,” Shaheen added as the two senators headed out the door to continue their tour of the town.
The woman later identified herself as Judy Walsh, and said she recently moved to Hopkinton, New Hampshire, from California. She wasn’t convinced by Hassan’s pitch, telling HuffPost she is planning to vote for Bolduc on Tuesday. “Basically, I just always vote pro-life,” Walsh explained.
The somewhat thorny exchange follows months of Democratic ads over the issue of abortion in the wake of the Supreme Court’s repeal of Roe v. Wade. In New Hampshire, reproductive rights are popular and abortion is legal up to 24 weeks. Bolduc has been careful not to back a national abortion ban like some other GOP Senate candidates, while Hassan has argued that he can’t be trusted on the issue because of several comments he made opposing abortion.
“He has been trying to cover up his extreme record, but at the end of the day Granite Staters are sophisticated, informed voters and they know dishonesty when they see it,” Hassan said Friday at a campaign rally in Durham.
But the elevated enthusiasm for Republican candidates across the country has led to last-minute fretting within the Democratic Party about their strategy of focusing on issues like abortion and the future of democracy instead getting more aggressive on the economy, which has risen to the top of voters’ minds.
“While the abortion issue must remain on the front burner, it would be political malpractice for Democrats to ignore the state of the economy and allow Republican lies and distortions to go unanswered,” Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) wrote recently.
For Bolduc, the central issue of the campaign boils down to “heating and eating,” a frequent refrain in his stump speech that refers to the cost of heating oil and food ahead of the coming winter. It’s a potent economic argument amid stubborn inflation eating into worker paychecks this year, and one Republicans are hoping will carry them to majorities in both houses of Congress.
But the GOP candidate veered way off track in the past week by playing up a false anti-trans, right-wing trope about students at schools using litter boxes and licking one another as part of a subculture known as “furries.” This fit into his broader theme on the campaign trail railing against public education and complaining about lessons on critical race theory and gender.
“Get this, get this — they’re putting litter boxes, litter boxes,” he said at an event last week, per audio posted by CNN. “I honestly wish this wasn’t real, a ‘Saturday Night Live’ skit … that was fictional, but it’s not.”
Although the New Hampshire school he where he claimed this was happening has denied the story, Bolduc hasn’t backed down. Asked Thursday by HuffPost if he made any efforts to personally verify his talking point, Bolduc dodged.
“In the course of talking to people at town halls, different subjects come up. That’s all that is,” he said. “Our education system is broken, not this other stuff. What’s going on in our classrooms is wrong. It’s inappropriate.”
The anti-LGBTQ rhetoric is resonating with Bolduc’s supporters.
“I’m a woman. You’re a man. Why do they have a problem saying ‘woman’ and ‘man’?” said Patricia Laforme, a retired accountant from Loudon, New Hampshire. “When it comes to Olympics in sports you have the women and the men.”
Meanwhile, Hassan criticized Bolduc for spreading “a really harmful conspiracy theory” in an interview with HuffPost, comparing it to his earlier election denialism.
In addition to echoing Trump’s lies about the 2020 election during the GOP primary, Bolduc has backed the elimination of the FBI and the Department of Education. He even called New Hampshire GOP Gov. Chris Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer.” The two have patched things up since, and Sununu’s popularity at the top of the ticket could now carry Bolduc to victory.
Hassan was first elected to the Senate in 2016 after beating GOP Sen. Kelly Ayotte in an election decided by just over 1,000 votes. During her time in office, she has kept a low-profile, voting largely in lockstep with her fellow Democrats and President Joe Biden. She has sought to put some distance between herself and Biden in the closing weeks of the race, highlighting her criticism of the U.S. troop withdrawal from Afghanistan, an issue that resonates in the veteran-heavy state, and calls for more border security.
While Hassan maintains that Biden is welcome to campaign in New Hampshire, he has stayed away — likely because his low approval rating would do more harm than good.
At the University of New Hampshire, Hassan let Warren give the closing speech in an auditorium full of college students, the kind of voters Democrats are desperately trying to get to the polls on Tuesday. She warned the crowd that losing the seat would mean making Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) majority leader again, paving the way for a national abortion ban and more tax cuts for the wealthy.
“There is so much on the line,” Warren said. “When there is this much at stake, we can whimper, we can cringe, we can whine, or we can fight back. Me? I’m fighting back.”