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How a trio of N.H. GOP candidates for U.S. Senate are carving out paths as political outsiders

Annie Ropeik
This year's state primary election is Sept. 13.

The large field of Republican U.S. Senate candidates vying to take on Democratic incumbent Sen. Maggie Hassan this November includes several hopefuls – Don Bolduc, Bruce Fenton and Vikram Mansharamani – who are working to brand themselves as political outsiders.

For those who’ve never before sought or held political office, outsiderdom may be a fact. For those who’ve been ignored — or in the case of Bolduc, been spurned by party leaders — embracing their outsider status may be a necessity.

Either way, these candidates are betting voters want something different.

They could be right. Polling indicates that more people than ever in New Hampshire, and Republicans in particular, think the country is heading in the wrong direction. But these self-styled outsiders also face challenges.

Fenton and Mansharamani lack name recognition, while Bolduc has failed to channel his strong second place finish in the 2020 primary into any fundraising support. And in a race without a clear frontrunner, or a well-known “insider” candidate to act as a foil, the outsider messaging might not resonate. (Other major candidates vying for the Republican nomination include New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse and former Londonderry Town Manager Kevin Smith.)

Part of this has to do with the fact that the pool of voters these candidates are competing for — people likely to cast ballots in a Republican Primary – is relatively small. Only once in the last 20 years has turnout for a U.S Senate primary topped 150,000 voters.

“The voters who show up are the regular routine voters, voters tend to go with candidates who are somewhat blessed by the party,” says Andy Smith, a pollster and political scientist at the University of New Hampshire.

And Smith said the outsider messaging may not move the needle much this year in New Hampshire, in the absence of a binary choice for GOP primary voters this year, or the dynamic that’s played out in Republican primaries in other states, where the race boils down to a contest between a candidate endorsed by former President Trump and a non-Trump backed candidate.

“It’s difficult for me to see how running as an outsider, in a primary, in a state like New Hampshire, is really going to get you that much attention,” Smith says.

But in a crowded field, in what has historically been a low-turnout election, it might not take much attention to make a difference.

Don Bolduc

Josh Rogers for NHPR
Don Bolduc (file photo)

Retired Army Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc, from Stratham, could be considered the race’s frontrunner based on available polling. But he’s still pitching himself as an outsider who’s independent from the GOP establishment and unbeholden to corporate interests.

“I’m an outsider. I’m not bought and paid for,” he recently told Breitbart Radio. “The establishment across the board is very worried about me, because they are not going to be able to control me.”

On the one hand, this is pretty boilerplate outsider talk: I’m not captive to political leaders, unbought by lobbyists, and so on. But there is a backstory with Bolduc, starting with when he first ran for U.S. Senate two years ago.

Voters may remember, he lost to Corky Messner, who was endorsed by much of the party establishment and then-President Donald Trump.

Bolduc felt spurned and shared his displeasure with that outcome loudly, and then quickly set his sights on 2022. Throughout his latest campaign, he’s taken aim at party leaders, including Gov. Chris Sununu, who he claimed had promised to back him.

Last year, Bolduc went so far as to claim Sununu’s decision to not mount his own run for senate was because he feared Bolduc would beat him. Bolduc also called Sununu a “Chinese Communist sympathizer” whose family business “supports terrorism.” Those claims are without foundation, obviously, and Bolduc has walked back those comments.

But the bottom line for Bolduc is that running any other way other than as an “outsider” may not be a choice. Even though he’s probably the best known candidate in this race — nearly 60,000 people voted for him two years ago — some of his staunchest support comes from people outside of the Republican Party’s mainstream, including hard line COVID vaccine skeptics and voters who vehemently believe the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. So Bolduc is certainly owning the outsider message.

Bruce Fenton

U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Fenton, a Republican.
Todd Bookman
U.S. Senate candidate Bruce Fenton, a Republican.

A new figure on the political scene is Bruce Fenton, a bitcoin investor and financial advisor who’s plowing a lot of his own money into this race. A self-described “leave me the hell alone” person, Fenton is casting himself as an outsider in whatever way he can. His politics are definitely informed by the cryptocurrency world, and he often says . cryptocurrency and bitcoin should not be regulated. Fenton is also member of the Free State Project. He says Ron Paul kindled his desire to enter politics and his decision to run was also driven by his concerns about COVID restrictions. If elected, he’s promising to basically vote no on any expansion of government and take any available action to disrupt business as usual in Washington.

“I can say what, what can I do to really cause trouble down there? What can I call in for a congressional hearing? What can I do to hold up? What can do to grind this terrible tyranny to a halt? I think I’m the best person for that, I really do,” he said during a 24-hour filibuster event he staged at a Manchester hotel. 

Fenton said that filibuster event was meant to demonstrate his appetite for fighting tyranny and the status quo.

Vikram Mansharamani

headshot of Vikram Mansharamani
Todd Bookman
Vikram Mansharamani, candidate for U.S. Senate, in a video posted to his website.

The other self-styled outsider in this race is Vikram Mansharamani, a Harvard lecturer and self-described “global trend watcher” who relocated to Lincoln from Massachusetts full-time during the COVID pandemic.

In some ways, Marsharamani is running in what may be the most familiar sort of outsider campaign and messaging — that of a person who touts their business credentials, and who says the government should run more like a business.

Mansharamai has worked in finance and advised companies. He also holds several advanced degrees from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Mansharamani appears to have carved out a niche on the business lecturing circuit, but he’s little known in New Hampshire. The same could be said of the precise contours of his politics. When asked at a recent GOP picnic to put his ideology on a spectrum, he paused for a bit before simply saying he’s “Republican.”

During the first debate of this race, he described the policies of the Trump administration as “spot-on.” But largely, Mansharamani is running on a biographical message: Emphasizing that he’s the son of immigrants, and is worried America’s place in the world is slipping.

“I'm a businessman,” he said in one campaign ad, “not a politician.”

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.

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