CHARLOTTE, N.C.—Ted Budd smiled and stood patiently behind the podium Friday night, waiting for the chants of “lock him up” to die down.
“He wants to hire 87,000 more IRS agents to treat all of these working families like tax cheats,” Budd said of President Joe Biden. “Come on, folks.”
Budd, a congressman running to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr, usually presents himself on the campaign trail as a generic Republican opposing the “Biden/Beasley agenda.” But the setting for his speech on Friday—a raucous Donald Trump rally at a Wilmington airport—served as a reminder that securing his party’s nomination depended on Trump’s endorsement.
Budd’s opponent, Cheri Beasley—a career judge and the first black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court—hasn’t campaigned with Biden, as Budd’s campaign constantly points out. But she focuses on kitchen-table issues and insists that “this race is not really partisan.”
For all their differences, Budd and Beasley are each trying to run politics-as-normal campaigns in a political moment that is inarguably abnormal. Budd highlights his embrace of Trump in front of his base but prefers to be seen as a nice-guy Republican by swing voters. Beasley barely mentions the unpopular Biden by name but has embraced much of his domestic policy agenda.
The race shouldn’t be as competitive as it is: Republicans haven’t lost a Senate race in North Carolina since 2008, when Kay Hagan unseated Elizabeth Dole. But Budd and Beasley are essentially tied in the polls, and FiveThirtyEight currently forecasts the race as the fourth most competitive in the country.
Beasley doesn’t use the word “inflation” on the campaign trail when she blames D.C. partisanship for hurting North Carolinians. “People really are feeling the pain at the pump,” she acknowledges. “And thankfully, some of those gas prices are coming down. But in the aggregate, because groceries are still expensive and everything else that they’re feeling, people want to see that the next senator is going to fight hard for relief.”
What exactly that relief should look like is vague. She praised the recently passed Inflation Reduction Act and noted that “the president made a decision on student debt” that is “life changing for a lot of folks.” When I asked her what she’d like to do in Congress to bring down costs, she took a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats approach.
“All of these are economic policies,” she said. “If we help out our farmers, those are economic policies that do that. If we address the supply chain issue, if we address climate resiliency, if we’re making sure that farmers have crop insurance—all of these are issues that impact our economy and make it stronger.”
The week after Labor Day, her campaign focused on agriculture, the number one industry in the state.
Grain farmer William Stimson and his daughter, Bailey, spoke at the Beasley event in Monroe and wove a host of issues into their presentation. While a few were farming-specific—USDA grants, carbon sequestration, and crop diversification, for instance—many others, such as faster internet and cheaper health insurance, were not.
Emphasizing the economy makes sense in North Carolina: 41 percent of voters there say that’s the most important issue right now, according to a recent Emerson College poll. Only 12 percent say that about abortion, but on that issue Beasley has prioritized mobilizing the base instead of reaching the middle.
Beasley says she’s open to working with Republicans on abortion legislation. But her default position is the Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that Democratic strategist Lis Smith wrote is “so broad in its provisions—superseding all state-level restrictions on abortion and all exemptions for religious institutions—that it couldn’t begin to win a majority vote.”
Budd’s campaign, meanwhile, resembles the Friday night Trump rally: riding Trump’s influence to the main event but hardly acknowledging him after. During his speech at the rally, Budd mentioned the former president’s name only once while lambasting Biden by name 17 times. Later, Trump called Budd back to the stage, where the congressman effusively thanked his endorser and promised not to back down.
Budd’s primary victory over former Gov. Pat McCrory in June is widely attributed to Trump’s endorsement. A hefty investment from the Club for Growth—which gave him a 15-to-1 lead in outside spending over his intra-party rivals—helped too.
McCrory got about a quarter of Republican primary votes and hasn’t yet endorsed Budd, whose embrace of Trump is a departure from the styles of Burr and Thom Tillis, the state’s other Republican senator. Burr voted to convict Trump in the former president’s second impeachment trial, and Tillis has acquired a reputation as a bipartisan dealmaker, helping to negotiate significant legislation on infrastructure and gun safety in this Congress. Burr voted for those efforts; Budd did not.
Tillis told The Dispatch he has endorsed Budd, but it appears nowhere on Budd’s campaign website, where Trump-aligned out-of-state senators Ted Cruz and Cynthia Lummis are highlighted instead.
Budd voted against certifying the results of the 2020 presidential election and once described the events of January 6 as “nothing” and “just patriots standing up.” Now, he stops short of that rhetoric. At a meet-and-greet at a senior living community in Matthews, one resident asked Budd to rate January 6 on a 1-10 scale with 1 being “an exercise of freedom of speech,” and 10 “a planned insurrection to overthrow the government.”
“It was a bad day,” Budd said. But he refused to give a number “because it’s a mixture.” He objected to certification because he thought changes to Pennsylvania’s election laws were unconstitutional, he explained. While he concedes that Biden is the “legitimate” president, he has sometimes indulged in speculation about alleged election-rigging, telling reporters last week that he has no reason not to accept the results of November’s election “unless the Democrats do something to generate a cause” for concern.
The pattern shows up again on abortion. Budd’s stump speech—inflation, crime, and illegal immigration are bad, and parents should have a say in their kids’ education—is standard fare. But Budd doesn’t mention abortion. At the Mecklenburg County GOP Picnic, Budd demurred when I asked him what abortion policies he’d support in the Senate. “I’m federal; now it’s a states’ issue,” he said. “The Democrats are the ones that are out of step with people. I’m for making it a states’ issue; they’re for making it radical.”
But less than a week later, he cosponsored a House bill that would ban most abortions after 15 weeks gestation while preserving states’ right to pursue stricter limits.
Budd always concludes by quoting his grandfather. “‘Do what you say you’re gonna do.’ … That’s the kind of senator I’m gonna be.”
What Budd is saying he’s going to do as a senator is unclear. But his position in the party is unmistakable.
“I want to thank President Trump for everything that he’s done for this country,” he told the rally-goers on Friday, breaking with his usual custom of not mentioning Trump by name. “You know, he made America great. And who knows folks, he might just do it again.”