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As N.H. GOP candidates jockey for Senate nomination, name recognition proves elusive

Don Bolduc addresses a room of people at the Windham Public Library. NHPR photo.
Josh Rogers
Don Bolduc speaks at the Windham Pubic Library last week.

When Don Bolduc worked the room inside the Windham library last week, it didn’t take long to shake hands. After all, just 12 people turned out.

But Bolduc didn’t seem to mind. The 62-year-old retired U.S. Army brigadier general, flanked by his service dog Victor, spoke and took questions for close to two hours.

“I’m telling you, across the state, it’s an unbelievable groundswell,” Bolduc said. “People are not happy and they want change.” 

The candidates in the seemingly wide-open Republican primary for U.S. Senate are pitching a message of change from incumbent Democrat Maggie Hassan, but it isn’t clear if voters are paying attention. A recent poll showed many respondents were unfamiliar with the candidates, with Bolduc having the most name recognition, a likely result of his failed 2020 U.S. Senate bid.

The turbulent economy, a war in Europe and landmark Supreme Court decisions are all front-burner issues, while a Senate race that could decide the balance of power in Washington remains tepid a little more than two months out from the primary.

So far in this sleepy race, Gov. Chris Sununu’s decision not to run remains its biggest development. That means having name recognition, at least among the Republican loyalists in the state, should count plenty.

“There is only one candidate so far who passes the 'Who’s that?' test among Republican primary voters, and that’s Don Bolduc,” said University of New Hampshire political scientist Dante Scala.

To date, none of the candidates have run TV ads or held large public events. To the extent this primary has had significant moments, they’ve largely been confined to social media — like when Kevin Smith, a former Londonderry town manager, shared a video of himself on Twitter, "literally standing on the border of Arizona and Mexico."

Republican Kevin Smith of Londonderry filed for the U.S. Senate race June 8, 2022.
Dan Tuohy / NHPR
Republican Kevin Smith of Londonderry filed for the U.S. Senate race June 8, 2022.

Smith isn’t new to New Hampshire politics. He ran for governor in 2012, and before that led the conservative advocacy group Cornerstone when it fought the legalization of same-sex marriage.

His politics remain conservative, but his presentation now tilts more everyman — foregrounding his enthusiasm for local sports teams, country music and his backyard Tiki bar. He's also quick to tweet upbeat assessments of campaign activity.

“These folks are fired up, and they are looking for a new generation of conservative leadership to take the fight down to Washington and they are ready for change in November,” Smith said in one Twitter video, adding, “Dig it!”

Another candidate looking to break through is Bruce Fenton, a financial advisor and early investor in Bitcoin who moved to New Hampshire as part of the Free State Project. Also active on Twitter, Fenton recently shared his mobile number with a pledge to "answer any question from any New Hampshire voter."

On the issues, he's committed to shrinking government and seeks major changes in U.S. currency policy.

“What they’re calling money, that’s just pictures of dead presidents that somebody is saying is money,” Fenton said. “And they are printing it from thin air by the trillions, and giving to their cronies. And that’s not real money and that’s not-sustainable, and that’s why the Weimar Republic and Zimbabwe and everything else crashes.”

Predicting economic swings is at the core of the campaign of Vikram Mansharamani, an economist who lectures at Harvard and lives in Lincoln. His bio notes "Linkedin twice listed him as their #1 Top Voice for Money." When he filed his campaign paperwork at the State House, he arrived driving a big rig truck.

He’s also taken his campaign pitch to his 12-year-old son’s podcast.

 “I said let me see if I can contribute, if I can help make this country a little bit better,” Mansharamani said in one recent episode.

“That’s an amazing thing to do in my opinion,” his son replied.

The final major candidate in this race is perhaps the best known candidate to political insiders, New Hampshire Senate President Chuck Morse.

Morse’s campaign is predicated on leveraging his record in Concord, where on his watch Republican majorities have have cut taxes, tightened abortion limits and loosened gun laws — all good things in a Republican primary. Whether voters associate those things with Morse is far from clear.

State Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, is running for U.S. Senate.
Dan Tuohy / NHPR
State Sen. Chuck Morse, R-Salem, is running for U.S. Senate.

“I care about the 603,” he told reporters while filing his U.S. Senate candidacy. “I grew up here, and certainly believe that what’s missing right now, and I think that needs to go to Washington.”

But for Morse and every other candidate in this race, Scala said the fundamental basic challenge remains getting voters to pay attention.

“We can talk about their profiles, all we want," he said, "but if it's just you and me and other people who follow this race closely, it really doesn't matter."

What matters right now for the candidates is doing all they can to get primary voters' attention.

Josh has worked at NHPR since 2000.
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