Magazine | September 30, 2019, Issue

Don Bolduc’s New Hampshire Senate Campaign

Then–brigadier general Donald Bolduc in Chad, 2016 (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Meet 2020’s other Donald

Concord, N.H.

Don Bolduc says he doesn’t remember the blast from the 2,000-pound bomb that fell on him in Afghanistan. He does remember the loud whistle before impact: “That’s a sound you don’t forget.” He also remembers regaining consciousness a few moments later, after the explosion had tossed him two or three dozen feet. The detonation was so powerful, it blew Bolduc’s wedding ring off his finger. “We’d all lost a lot of weight over there, so it was loose.” A sergeant found it in the rubble.

The friendly-fire accident on December 5, 2001, killed some 200 Afghan and three American soldiers and left Bolduc limping with leg and hip injuries. Yet Bolduc stayed in the field. At the time a major in the Army, he was traveling with future Afghan president Hamid Karzai and assisting in the capture of Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second-largest city. Bolduc was among the first Americans to battle the Taliban after 9/11. He rode on horseback, like the so-called horse soldiers who participated in the seizure of Mazar-i-Sharif, a city in Afghanistan’s north, and were portrayed in the 2018 film 12 Strong. “We did everything they did in the movie, but in the south,” says Bolduc.

Bolduc’s new mission is to take a Senate seat next year in New Hampshire. On June 24, the retired brigadier general announced his candidacy for the Republican nomination to run against Democratic incumbent Jeanne Shaheen. The primary is still a year away — scheduled for September 8, it’s one of the latest in the country — but Bolduc already may be on the verge of becoming a consensus candidate. If he wins, he could represent one of the two or three best opportunities for a GOP challenger to defeat a Democratic senator in 2020.

The 57-year-old Donald Charles Bolduc is short and buff, with arms like tree trunks. His gray hair is swept back, and one of his favorite words is the New England regionalism “wicked,” which he uses as an adverb to intensify adjectives, as in “wicked good” or “wicked common.” His constant companion is Victor, an all-black German shepherd who wears a flag patch and a campaign button on his vest. Victor is wicked popular with voters in diners and at political events, but he’s also more than an election gimmick: He’s a service dog whose nightly duty is to wake Bolduc when sleep apnea causes him to stop breathing.

Born and raised in Laconia, N.H., Bolduc worked as a police cadet as a teenager and also labored on his grandparents’ farm in nearby Gilford. His grandfather had a rule: All male Bolducs were to serve in the military. So after graduating from high school in 1981, Bolduc enlisted in the Army as a private. Two years later, he participated in the invasion of Grenada, fighting against Cuban soldiers who were propping up the Caribbean island’s Communist regime. After rising to the rank of sergeant, he enrolled at Salem State College, in Massachusetts, and went through an ROTC program. He met his wife at the school and came out with a commission as a second lieutenant in 1988. During the Gulf War, he deployed to northern Iraq, among the Kurds. “There were American flags everywhere,” he says. “We didn’t want to leave. We knew what was in store for them.” What was in store for them, after the U.S. pullout, was brutal repression by Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi strongman.

On 9/11, Bolduc was with his battalion at Fort Campbell, on the Kentucky–Tennessee border, preparing for a military exercise in Jordan. The terrorist attacks changed everything, and a few weeks later he headed to Afghanistan, where he wound up spending a total of 66 months. The bomb that injured him near Kandahar wasn’t his only brush with death: In 2005, he survived a helicopter crash in Urozgan Province. The next year, he joined a major offensive against the Taliban in Operation Medusa, described by Major Rusty Bradley in his book Lions of Kandahar. “In my fifteen years in the Army, I’d never had a better commander,” wrote Bradley. “Bolduc understood the importance of details and, like a chess master, his command of the big picture made him lethal.” Across 33 years on active duty, Bolduc received two awards for valor, five Bronze Stars, and two Purple Hearts.

He also developed a case of post-traumatic stress. “It’s a mental injury for me, from combat,” he said at a mental-health center on August 19, as he campaigned in Concord. “I had to go get treatment.” He refuses to call it a “disorder,” preferring the acronym “PTS” to the more familiar “PTSD.” He speaks openly about the affliction, insisting that nobody treat it like a shameful stigma. “It’s like a broken ankle.” The New York Times profiled him in 2016 for his efforts to call attention to PTS, and he also appeared in a segment on 60 Minutes. “I want to be an example for anyone with PTS,” he says. “I want to show how high-functioning we can be. I’m breaking a lot of myths about what people think about mental health.”

Even so, Bolduc believes his outspokenness cost him a promotion, leading to his retirement from the Army in 2017. He settled in New Hampshire with the idea of becoming involved in advocacy for veterans. He joined veterans’ groups, called for the adoption of a “Green Alert” system to locate missing vets, and gave speeches wherever audiences gathered. A few Granite State Republicans began to wonder if he had the makings of a politician — and perhaps one with a special ability to attract the independent voters that any statewide candidate in New Hampshire needs. It didn’t hurt that potential contenders with bigger names were declining to jump in: New Hampshire governor Chris Sununu, plus former U.S. senators Kelly Ayotte and Scott Brown (who is presently ambassador to New Zealand). Shortly after Bolduc announced his run at a Veterans of Foreign Wars post in Concord, he won an endorsement from the Senate Conservatives Fund.

Bolduc calls himself a lifelong Republican but says he quit casting ballots when he became a general: “I followed the George Marshall rule,” referring to the soldier and statesman who didn’t want to put himself in the position of having voted against a sitting president. This means Bolduc didn’t vote for Donald Trump in 2016, but he says he would have. In front of GOP voters, he’s eager to connect himself to Trump. “We have only one Republican senator in New England,” he says. That’s Susan Collins, next door in Maine. “Our president needs somebody to help him.”

Bolduc sums up his philosophy in a single sentence: “I’m a constitutional conservative.” He’s pro-life and an ally of the Second Amendment who opposes red-flag laws. He supports the tax cuts of 2017 but also calls himself a “deficit hawk” who would have voted against last summer’s two-year budget deal. He wants Congress to approve the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (the proposed successor to NAFTA) and backs the president’s trade war with China: “He’s had to use tariffs as a weapon. He’s done it effectively.” On immigration, he supports Trump’s plan to build a wall as well as spending more on security in general. He also refers to his own experience as an Army captain, deployed to the Mexican border in the 1990s: “I’m very, very, very conservative about how we should use the military on the border.” What he means is that he’s reluctant to send combat troops there, even as he seeks to reduce the flow of illegal immigration.

When he can fall back on his time in the military, Bolduc speaks with authority and confidence. He has strong opinions about U.S. policy toward Afghanistan and what the administration should seek if it negotiates an accord with the Taliban that could include removing some of the estimated 14,500 military personnel who are still there. “We have brought the Afghans as far as we can bring them,” he says. “We can’t be there another 18 years.” He favors an international troop presence that includes Americans, but only if allied countries contribute more to the effort. Any deal with the Taliban also must guarantee that Afghanistan keep out terrorist groups such as al-Qaeda. The United States, he believes, should focus more of its diplomacy on regional security, including the dangerous rivalry between India and Pakistan.

At other moments, however, Bolduc can reveal his political inexperience. On August 19, he visited a rustproofing business in Chichester. When the owner, Joe Dupont, described how he has to order parts from China because they’re too expensive to make in the United States, Bolduc speculated about providing federal subsidies for small businesses. “I’m not sure that’s the answer,” said Dupont. Bolduc nevertheless repeated the idea to me the next day in an interview. An aide phoned a couple of hours later to explain that Bolduc doesn’t really think the government should run an industrial policy that picks winners and losers. At a fundraiser that evening, Bolduc acknowledged that he’s new to electioneering: “I don’t have all the answers. I don’t pretend to have all the answers. I want to listen and learn.”

One area where he may come to shine is on health care, because it allows him to mix his military experience and passion for veterans with a pressing public-policy concern. “As military guys, we plan for the worst-case scenarios,” he says. For him, that means one of the “Medicare for All” plans pitched by Democrats. “Our elderly will be rationed, Millennials won’t get what they need, and everyone in between will suffer.” For him, a best-case scenario involves more choice, affordability, and mental-health coverage: Bolduc says health-care insurance should be more like auto insurance, with lots of options. He also makes a pledge that could resonate with voters: “Congress should not have better medical care than the people they’re serving,” he said at a house party in Exeter on August 20. “I will keep my veteran’s medical care.” In addition, he promises to abide by a term limit: “Two terms, I’m done.”

Bolduc may face a few obstacles on his way to the GOP nomination. He has two declared opponents: lawyer Corky Messner and former New Hampshire house speaker Bill O’Brien. A more formidable foe could be Corey Lewandowski, the onetime Trump campaign manager, who has said he’s looking at the race. Even if Bolduc prevails, he’ll still have to beat Shaheen, who will enjoy the advantages of incumbency as well as a track record that includes three victories in races for governor and two for senator. Yet she may be more vulnerable than the conventional wisdom suggests: She lost her first race for the Senate (in 2002), and her majorities in both of her wins (in 2008 and 2014) were below 52 percent.

New Hampshire is home to lots of close elections. In 2016, Trump lost the state by fewer than 3,000 votes. Next year’s Senate race could be another nail-biter — and if 2020 is a strong year for Republicans, a new Year of the Donald could be about more than one Donald.

This article appears as “That Other Donald” in the September 30, 2019, print edition of National Review.

John J. Miller is the national correspondent for National Review and the director of the Dow Journalism Program at Hillsdale College. His new book is Reading Around: Journalism on Authors, Artists, and Ideas.

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