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Republicans Have One Last Chance to Keep a Weak Senate Candidate Off the November Ballot

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For anyone watching this week’s Republican primary in New Hampshire’s potentially pivotal Senate race, Gov. Chris Sununu’s eleventh-hour endorsement of Chuck Morse to take on Sen. Maggie Hassan didn’t come as much of a shock. After all, Sununu has a productive relationship with Morse, the state senate president, and the pair had worked in tandem to push a shared agenda in the Granite State.

But the last Granite State-University of New Hampshire poll showed Morse running 21 points behind retired Army Brigadier General Don Bolduc, who Sununu has called a “conspiracy-theorist extremist” —a view not uncommon inside a party that only in the last two weeks has recognized they are at risk of blowing yet another winnable race with another flawed candidate.

The break-glass moment, though, may be arriving too late in a cycle where the hands-off approach from national Republicans may end up costing them a very reachable majority.

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That Sununu finally made an endorsement on Thursday suggests he believes a late rally for Morse might still be possible in a state famous for late-breaking decisions. The governor, a member of the state’s most successful political dynasty of this era, isn’t one to waste capital on a lost cause.

All the while, a third candidate in the crowded primary, longtime conservative insider Kevin Smith, remains in the mix, although struggling in public and private polls alike to hit double digits. Given the notoriously cranky New Hamphsire electorate’s glee in smashing political conventional wisdom, it would be foolish to summarily dismiss Smith’s chances, either, given his well-earned reputation among the party’s policy wonks.

Put another way: anyone predicting how Granite Staters are going to come down on Tuesday doesn’t know the state or its puckish pluck.

Bolduc would be but the latest example of a colorful figure who captures the imagination of the burn-it-down crowd in Republican primaries. He has suggested ending the direct election of Senators, entertains the abolishment of the FBI, and has said Sununu is “a Chinese Communist sympathizer.” He is a hardcore advocate of Donald Trump’s Big Lie. But unlike troubled candidacies in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Ohio, the former President has no real culpability for Bolduc in this, the final consequential primary of a messy primary season; Trump has kept his powder dry, in part because former Trump adviser and current New Hampshire resident Cory Lewandowski is no fan of Bolduc.

Many Republicans in Concord, N.H., and Washington alike see Bolduc as a fringe figure who, if nominated, would make it more difficult—if not impossible—for their party to retake the Senate, where the balance stands at an even 50-50. Republicans and Democrats alike see Hassan as one of the more vulnerable Democratic incumbents, regardless of her impressive fundraising advantage. Bolduc raised less than $600,000 through the reporting period that ended on Aug. 24, while Hassan has hauled in more than $31 million.

In the last two weeks, the Senate Leadership Fund—a super PAC with ties to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell’s orbit—dropped more than $4 million in attempts to block Bolduc. Another $23 million in the super PAC’s ads are teed up to start next week and run through November. And even the most conservative activists in the state are coming around to realize the stakes of the race, not just for New Hampshire but for how President Joe Biden governs for the balance of this term.

New Hampshire is notorious for mixed ballots. Two years ago, Sununu won a third term by a margin of 32 points; Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen won her re-election by a 16-point margin on the same ballot. The Red Sox and Patriots may be the local teams, but contrarianism is the home sport.

A Bolduc nomination could help Democrats maintain their monopoly on the state’s delegation to Washington. Both Senators and both incumbent House members wear blue jerseys, although redrawn districts mean Reps. Annie Kuster and Chris Pappas have slightly less familiar turf for re-election bids this year. Competitive Republican primaries in both districts have left the GOP split.

Kuster’s district, which includes Concord and Nashua, seems likely to nominate former Hillsborough County Treasurer Robert Burns. The district likes to swap party affiliations with regularity, leaving it as one of the few true swing districts in the country.

In Pappas’ similar district, which includes Manchester, Portsmouth and the vacation-playground Lakes Region, former news anchor—and wife of former Sen. Scott Brown—Gail Huff Brown is fighting an uphill march against Karoline Leavitt, a former press aide to the Trump White House and to Rep. Elise Stefaniak, and former state party chief Matt Mowers, who worked for Chris Christie’s presidential bid before taking senior roles in Trump’s State Department. Mowers narrowly lost to Pappas two years ago before the district was redrawn to be slightly more favorable to Republicans.

Still, the marquee race is the Senate fight. Hassan is heading into the fall with a clear fundraising advantage and a masterful machine, while Bolduc, Morse, and Smith would have to build an operation on the fly. New Hampshire’s historically late federal primary leaves non-incumbents at a disadvantage to build party unity, a warchest, and momentum. Republicans can ill afford to count on a state as politically chaotic as New Hampshire as a sure thing, even as Hassan by all accounts could be in trouble.

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Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com