He Survived Afghanistan, But Can He Survive a Republican Primary?

Don Bolduc has survived a helicopter crash and a 2,000 pound bomb accidentally being dropped on him. After 9/11, the U.S. brigadier general helped take on the Taliban on horseback, leading one of the first special ops groups to seize the treacherous mountains of southern Afghanistan.

And yet, on this January night, the 57-year-old retired soldier is just another U.S. Senate candidate, shaking hands, trying to win the votes of a bunch of college Republicans less than half his age at a State of the Union watch party in Manchester, New Hampshire. What’s worse, his opponent, Corky Messner — a multi-millionaire lawyer, businessman and former serviceman himself (Army Ranger) — bought the field by sponsoring the event. Everything from the catered buffet to the table placards to the poster board behind the sole podium is emblazoned with Messner’s logo. “There is no way in hell I’m delivering my speech in front of a Corky banner,” the grey-haired general gripes, asking his political director to do something about it.


Corky Messner

This is foreign territory for the two-time Purple Heart recipient. “After 36 years in the Army, I don’t give a damn about politics. I’m trained to get the job done,” Bolduc said in July, announcing himself as the first Republican bidding to unseat incumbent Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen. And on paper, he is a strong candidate for the Live Free or Die State: son to the mayor of Laconia, police cadet as a teenager, summers on his grandfather’s family farm in nearby Gilford. He only left to serve in the Army, where he earned the nicknames “Captain America” and “Everyone’s General” by troops thankful for his willingness to speak up on “Post Traumatic Stress” — he drops the ‘D’ for “Disorder’ because he doesn’t want to stigmatize. “In my fifteen years in the Army, I’d never had a better commander,” Major Rusty Bradley wrote of Bolduc in his book Lions of Kandahar. “Bolduc understood the importance of details and, like a chess master, his command of the big picture made him lethal.”

We have people that are lock, stock and barrel willing to follow someone off of the cliff. They are the problem, not me.

Don Bolduc

By last November, Bolduc had risen to the top of both polls and fundraising tallies and earned the backing of the Senate Conservatives Fund, which has helped lift Republicans like Mike Lee, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz to stardom.

But he has his obstacles. Particularly the allegation that Bolduc doesn’t adequately back Trump (local enemies point to a statement criticizing Trump’s troop withdrawal and abandoning of the Kurds in northern Syria in October, and an Atlantic article that included Bolduc’s frank assessment of the president’s foreign policy strategy under the headline, “Top Military Officers Unload on Trump.”) Bolduc reiterates that he supports Trump on almost every issue, and that he was simply offering his clear-eyed expertise. “I’m not anti-Trump. Ronald Reagan said to be a good Republican you have to agree with me 80 percent of the time. He understood there will be times where you have to disagree,” he says. “We have people that are lock, stock and barrel willing to follow someone off of the cliff. They are the problem, not me.”

Screenshot 2020-03-01 at 12.01.36 AM

Bolduc (right) during a briefing in Afghanistan in 2012.

Trump, whose former campaign manager Corey Lewandowski flirted with a run but backed out, has not yet endorsed ahead of the Republican primary in September. As elsewhere, his presence hangs over everything.

“I represent the base, the grassroots here. The first thing I’m asking of any candidate: What is your position on this president, and his agenda?” says state senator Fred Doucette, a co-chair of the Trump re-election effort in New Hampshire who switched his endorsement from Bolduc to Messner in February. “I put men and women’s lives, and my own life, on the line for Donald Trump’s policies. You have not had that kind of skin in the game, Fred,” Bolduc says in response.

Sitting down for an interview, Bolduc is short, with bristling energy and brawny arms — one of the few hobbies he allows himself is hitting the gym. He promises to be pro-life, pro-gun and a deficit hawk. Fighting opioid addiction, reducing the national debt and securing the nation’s energy grid and communications infrastructure are priorities. He wants a full-service VA hospital in New Hampshire, believes immigrants who enter the country illegally should not have a path to citizenship and wants to create a reduced tuition benefit program for college students who perform public service — like the GI Bill, but not just for service members.

He takes a philosopher’s mindset to the problems facing the upcoming generation, many of whom he led in the Army and now teaches in his post-military job as a professor at nearby New England College. “We’re lazy. But people have made us lazy,” he says students tell him. The problem is “handing everything out,” he argues, and “if you look at where the Democratic agenda, it has gone further and further in that direction.” One of the biggest challenges for Bolduc on the campaign trail has been self-promotion — a common problem for veterans entering politics. “Running for office, you have to overcome your humility,” he says. “I suck at telling my personal story.”

Cash is another potential roadblock. Bolduc has raised more from donors than Messner ($348,934 to $268,787), but the general can’t match Messner’s self-funding ($1.2 million so far) that fuels everything from TV ads to dinner buffets for hungry College Republicans, among other things:


Back at that State of the Union watch party, Bolduc finally delivers his speech. There are soaring moments: “I’ve worked with Congress. I’ve worked with the agencies. I can go in Day One and get the job done for you!” There are some, well, not so soaring moments: He’s excited to speak to “the youth” because “they are the future,” and seems especially scripted when he stumbles through his “people, family, mission” mantra.

And in the end, his orders were ignored: the “Corky Messner for Senate” poster looms behind him the entire speech. Still, don’t count him out. This general knows a little something about fighting from behind enemy lines.

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