Don Bolduc, the conservative Republican running for U.S. Senate in New Hampshire, said he understands the three biggest challenges facing most residents.
"Inflation, inflation, inflation," the retired brigadier general told voters at a recent event at the Chamber of Commerce in Nashua, New Hampshire.
Bolduc wants to focus on the weak economy. But he's having a hard time distancing himself from former President Donald Trump and the "big lie" that the 2020 election was stolen.
Bolduc repeatedly pushed the false claim during the primary, but quickly reversed his position after he won the nomination — creating the appearance that he was trying to court independents in the general election. But Bolduc denies pandering to different groups of voters.
"People can change their mind," he told WBUR. "I no longer have that position, and I'm not doing it to cater to anybody."
Like many Republicans, Bolduc hopes to ride a red wave into the U.S. Senate this year. Inflation is high, President Biden's approval is low. And New Hampshire has long been considered a purple state where Republicans can win.
But New Hampshire is also a moderate state, where abortion rights are popular, Donald Trump is not, and most voters believe Biden won the 2020 election. Democratic incumbent Maggie Hassan is now trying to use all those issues against Bolduc, who she calls an election denier.
"He spent over a year stoking the big lie," Hassan told WBUR. "What you're seeing now is Don Bolduc trying to hide and mislead people about how extreme he really is."
Hassan's strategy might be working. Polls suggest she has a solid lead.
Nationally, many political observers expect Republicans to make big gains in Congress this election season, retaking the House and perhaps the Senate.
But it's still hard for many conservatives to beat Democrats in New England, especially those aligned with the former president. All 21 House members from the region are Democrats. The only Republican senator is Susan Collins of Maine, a moderate who supports abortion and declined to endorse Trump in 2020.
Still, some parts of the region are considered swing districts, where both Republicans and Democrats have won in the past. So to fend off challengers, Democrats are trying to shift the focus to issues where they believe they have the advantage here: Trump and abortion.
In New Hampshire, for instance, Democrats have attacked Republican Robert Burns, who is trying to unseat U.S. Rep. Annie Kuster, for proposing panels of doctors be empowered to decide whether a woman needs an abortion to save her life. Critics call them "death panels."
But Burns said the requirement would provide valuable medical advice, especially to people who are poor or still learning English.
"I wouldn't call that a 'death panel,' " he said. "That's a life panel."
Burns is a pro-Trump conservative who beat a more moderate candidate, Keene Mayor George Hansel — thanks in part to spending from Democrats who thought Burns will be easier to beat in November. Polls show he's running well behind Kuster.
Kuster said conservatives like Burns and Bolduc represent a new breed of hard-right candidates in the state.
"We've seen conservative Republican politicians," Kuster said, "but we've never seen this level of extreme."
It's not just New Hampshire. Across New England, many pro-Trump, anti-abortion candidates have beaten more moderate candidates, despite arguments that moderates would have a better chance off beating Democrats in the general elections.
"In Republican primary world, the whole country is Alabama," said Bill Curry, a political writer and a Democrat who ran unsuccessfully for governor of Connecticut and served as an advisor to President Bill Clinton.
Curry points to this year's U.S. Senate race in Connecticut. Republicans thought they had a good chance to oust Democrat Richard Blumenthal, who is running for a third term. But a conservative, Leora Levy, won the GOP nomination with the help of Trump's endorsement. And now, Blumenthal has a double-digit lead in surveys.
"There can always be miracles in politics, but I don't think you'll see one in Connecticut this year," Curry said.
Curry argues the allegiance to Trump in Republican primaries is leading to the disappearance of a long line of moderate Republican office holders in New England. They include figures like former Massachusetts Gov. William Weld, and the current governor, Charlie Baker, who supports abortion rights and refused to back Trump.
By contrast, Geoff Diehl, the Massachusetts Republican nominee hoping to succeed Baker, is a pro-Trump, anti-abortion Republican. And his opponent, Democratic Attorney General Maura Healey, has been eager to remind voters of both those positions. Especially his ties to Trump, who remains deeply unpopular in deep blue Massachusetts.
"This is really clear in this election," Healey declared in the first gubernatorial debate. "My opponent is Donald Trump's candidate for governor."
Polls suggest Healey has a commanding lead over Diehl in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by a wide margin and where Diehl's allegiance to Trump won't help his chances.
The one race in New England where a Republican is favored to win is also one featuring a moderate: Allan Fung, the former Republican mayor of Cranston, who is running for Congress in Rhode Island's 2nd District.
Fung said he supports abortion in many circumstances and is willing to part company with the former president. In a recent TV interview, Fung said Trump was "not a guy that I would hang out with."
Polls show Fung is running well ahead of Democrat Seth Magaziner, even though Biden carried the district by 13 points and Democrats have held the seat for decades.
The Cook Political Report suggests Republicans have a chance to win a few other House races across New England, including in New Hampshire, Connecticut and Maine.
But most seats across the region are thought to be safely in Democratic hands, including all nine House seats in Massachusetts. Trump's influence over the Republican Party has a lot to do with that.
This segment aired on October 24, 2022.