Wolfeboro trial lawyer Bryant “Corky” Messner led retired Brig. Gen. Don Bolduc of Stratham in initial returns Tuesday night.
The fight between the two Republicans in the U.S. Senate primary was expensive and at times testy.
This may be what Republican State Chairman Stephen Stepanek was talking about during a rally at a downtown Manchester hotel Tuesday when he said everyone in the party needs to get behind Tuesday’s winners.
“At the end of the night, whoever the winners are, that is our ticket and those are the people all of us are going to support,” Stepanek said.
“The goal from this point is to win in November.”
With 57 percent of the vote counted, Messner led Bolduc, 49-to-44%.
Messner won several wards in Manchester and Concord along with Jaffrey and Seabrook. Bolduc won a ward in Laconia, where he was born, along with the towns of Alstead, Epping and Sanbornton.
And Messner said his campaign had him out in front by 8 percent, and he was optimistic of ultimate victory.
“We are going to be sure and immediately after we determine that we’ve won, we are going to work to beat Jeanne Shaheen,” Messner said.
Later he stressed, “We are not going to celebrate; we are going to unify.”
Bolduc wasn’t conceding and said he was still wanting to hear from other key towns.
“It is in God’s hands and it is in the voter’s hands; this is an establishment candidate against an outsider candidate,” Bolduc said.
The winner will face off against Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., who is seeking a third six-year term this November.
The personal biographies of the two candidates became a major source of friction.
Messner, 63, only moved to New Hampshire full-time a year ago, though he had purchased a vacation home on Lake Wentworth in 2007.
“I’ll live here in New Hampshire forever,” Messner said, adding he had spent a decade supporting conservation projects here.
Bolduc, 62, vowed to “hold myself accountable” to Granite Staters.
“I come from here, born and raised here. I am the New Hampshire native,” Bolduc declared.
Before the polls closed Tuesday, Shaheen, 73, of Madbury, said she had agreed to three debates, one televised on WMUR, a second broadcast on New Hampshire Public Radio and a third hosted by the White Mountain Economic Council.
“There are significant differences between my opponents and me,” Shaheen said.
“It is my strong hope that whoever wins the Republican primary will immediately agree to join me in your debate and the two other open debates so that Granite Staters can compare our records on the issues.”
Her campaign manager said the choice between either one would be striking.
“Jeanne Shaheen delivered a tenfold increase in opioid treatment funding, helped get New Hampshire veterans health care closer to home and is a leader in the fight to protect Granite Staters’ health care,” Harrell Kirstein said in a statement.
“When COVID-19 hit, she helped create the bipartisan relief program for small businesses that has connected 24,000 New Hampshire small businesses with loans, saving more than 200,000 Granite State jobs. When it comes to making a difference for New Hampshire, she gets the job done, and her record stands in sharp contrast to whoever the Republicans nominate tonight.”
A West Point grad, Messner served as an Army Ranger and was stationed in Germany during the Cold War. A native of Altoona, Pa., Messner started his own legal defense firm in Denver, Colo. and built it into a national business with 100 lawyers and multiple offices across the country.
He retired from the business last year and spent more than $4 million of his own money in this race.
Supporters of Bolduc had warned Shaheen would beat the “carpetbagger” Messner, as she did in 2014 in a race with former Massachusetts U.S. Sen. Scott Brown, who moved here permanently a short time before challenging her.
Bolduc was in the U.S. Army for 33 years, with 10 foreign deployments, five Bronze Stars and two Purple Hearts.
He was one of the first troops sent to Afghanistan after the 9-11 attacks and was part of a horseback-riding team that beat back the Taliban.
President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Messner was one of the major flash points in the campaign.
In response, Bolduc initially said “party bosses” and the “super-wealthy” were trying to substitute their judgment for that of 1st District voters.
Bolduc soon clarified that the president was free to endorse who he wanted but voters would reward him.
Bolduc was outspent by up to 5-1 in the race, though he raised more in personal donations than Messner.
The Senate Conservatives Fund backed Bolduc a year ago, and the candidate won over many individual veteran leaders, along with former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark.
Among the GOP leaders backing Bolduc were Executive Councilor Ted Gatsas and former Manchester Mayor Ray Wieczorek, as well as former House Speaker Doug Scamman.
Those supporting Messner included four state senators and about 30 state representatives, along with former House Speaker Bill O’Brien of Nashua and 2019 Manchester mayoral candidate Victoria Sullivan.
A month before the primary, Bolduc attracted the criticism of some gay rights groups when his digital ad contained what they claimed was a homophobic slur.
“I didn’t spend my life defending this country to let a bunch of liberal socialist pansies squander it away,” Bolduc said.
Later he defended the term as referring to liberal Democrats who were “weak.”
Throughout the race, Messner largely ignored Bolduc and kept his focus on Shaheen, attacking her as a former governor who became more wealthy after moving to Capitol Hill.
Bolduc and Messner shared similar positions with Trump on the key issues of the day, supporting a crackdown against illegal immigration, more restrictions on legal abortions and a tougher trade stance with China.