By Michael Warren
Nearly a year after former President Donald Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd for North Carolina’s open Senate race, the conservative congressman appears in strong position heading into Tuesday’s Republican primary.
A Budd victory would deliver the former President another key win during the busy month of May primaries — and in a state Trump carried twice during his presidential bids. But despite Trump’s early support for the congressman over former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker, which came as a surprise announcement at last year’s state GOP convention, Budd struggled to break out from the pack until the final months of the race.
Budd has had substantial help from the Club for Growth, which has backed him since his 2016 primary for the US House, when the group helped him emerge victorious from a 17-person primary. In this cycle’s Senate race, the Club’s super PAC has spent more than any other group on either side of the aisle, dropping just under $12 million in ads to attack McCrory and Walker.
All of that spending has made the North Carolina race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr one of the most expensive of the cycle — and it has worked to the benefit of Budd.
“People make a lot of the Trump endorsement, but the Club for Growth money was more significant. A Trump endorsement opens the door to Trump base voters, but it doesn’t seal the deal,” said Doug Heye, a longtime Republican operative who is from North Carolina. “The Club’s spending built up Budd’s name ID and undercut McCrory, who has struggled to develop a working message the entire campaign.”
The North Carolina Senate race is one of the few races this cycle where Trump and the Club are aligned after a notable spat in Ohio and a more recent split in Pennsylvania. Trump’s candidate prevailed over the Club-backed candidate in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary earlier this month, while the Club-backed candidate is giving the Trump-backed candidate a run for his money in Pennsylvania’s GOP Senate primary on Tuesday.
After a slow fundraising start, Budd caught up with McCrory, who entered the North Carolina race with establishment support. Heading into the final weeks of the primary, Budd had narrowly eclipsed McCrory in total money raised, and his campaign has spent $2 million on ads compared to McCrory’s $1.69 million. A pro-McCrory super PAC, Carolina Senate Fund, has spent just over $1 million, far below the Club’s big investment.
The former governor, who lost reelection in 2016 at the same time Trump carried the state, has failed to capitalize on that aforementioned establishment support, and was unable to find an effective attack on Budd. In March, McCrory released a TV ad criticizing Budd for past votes against bringing voting against a bill to bring sanctions against Russia and accusing Budd of praising Russian President Vladimir Putin following the invasion of Ukraine.
“While Ukrainians bled and died,” McCrory said in a voiceover, “Congressman Budd excused their killer.” As noted in a CNN Fact Check, the ad misleadingly omits comments in which Budd sharply criticized Putin.
The Club’s super PAC responded with an ad blasting McCrory as a liberal and highlighting clips of Budd criticizing Putin.
The flap over Putin did little to change the trajectory of Budd’s slow and steady rise in private and public polls. Nor did the persistence of Walker, the former congressman seen as a rival with Budd for the most conservative votes in the primary. Walker resisted calls for him to drop out following Trump’s endorsement of his former colleague, but he has not proven to be a major drag on Budd’s consolidation of conservative support. Army veteran Marjorie Eastman has raised significantly less money but could still siphon off some votes from the leading men in the race.
The winning candidate only needs to surpass 30% of the vote to avoid a runoff election.
The winner of the Republican primary will likely face Democrat Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court, in the general election. Beasley has been the frontrunner for the nomination since two of her most formidable rivals dropped out and endorsed her.
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