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Trump Tests His Influence in North Carolina
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Trump Tests His Influence in North Carolina

Ted Budd looks to become the GOP’s Senate nominee, and scandal-plagued Rep. Madison Cawthorn faces his own crowded primary challenge.

In April, all but one of the major GOP candidates in the race for North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat took the debate stage to make their pitch to voters. But an empty podium stood in for Ted Budd, a U.S. congressman from the state’s 13th District. 

“He’s not for you,” former Gov. Pat McCrory told voters about the missing candidate. “If he were for you, he would be here right now. He’s acting like he’s entitled.”

It wasn’t a new tactic for Budd: He skipped all four of the Republican primary debates. But voters don’t seem likely to punish him for it. Budd has surged to the top of a crowded primary contest, despite challenges from other prominent Republicans, including McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker. 

Now, Tar Heel State voters are heading to the ballot box Tuesday to pick contenders to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr, as well as weigh in on a number of down-ballot contests. Polls close at 7:30 p.m. across the state.

Around 300,000 voters voted early in North Carolina’s primary elections, which has seen high absentee voter turnout. 8 percent of voters opted to vote absentee—a combo of early voting and mail-in ballots.

To capture the party nomination and avoid a primary runoff in North Carolina, a candidate must have more than 30 percent of the vote.

Burr’s Senate seat is open following his 2016 announcement that he would not run for reelection. His favorability among fellow Republicans declined after he faced an insider trading scandal in 2020 and voted to convict former President Donald Trump in his second impeachment trial. That vote led to a censure by the North Carolina Republican party. 

Last year, McCrory, who served as governor from 2013 to 2017, led in the Senate primary polls, benefiting from the name recognition acquired in 14 years as mayor of Charlotte and his single gubernatorial term. His administration is perhaps best known for signing into law the controversial “bathroom bill” requiring people to use public restrooms that corresponded with the sex listed on their birth certificate. The move sparked a backlash from corporations, which opted not to expand their presences in the state, as well as in the sports world: The NBA scuttled plans to host the 2017 All-Star Game in Charlotte. The economic cost of such moves may have been in the billions of dollars. Just months after the controversy, McCrory lost his re-election campaign to Roy Cooper, a Democrat.

Initially, not much seemed to distinguish McCrory’s opponents, Walker and Budd. Walker, a former Baptist pastor who served in the House from 2015 to 2021, appealed to the same conservative, pro-Trump voters as Budd. He entered the race before Budd and racked up a score of endorsements from Republican state officials, as well as some national ones—including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, and North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn.

But Budd has been on an upward trajectory in recent months. Last June, Budd got a boost by winning the endorsement of Donald Trump. Last month, a Selma rally alongside the former president produced another boost.

Trump also pressured Walker to drop out of the race. He offered to endorse Walker if he ran for another House seat, an offer Walker ultimately rebuffed.

But another factor has perhaps been more significant for Budd’s late rise: The conservative Club for Growth has spent about $11 million for Budd. In an onslaught of ads, the group has attacked erstwhile frontrunner McCrory as a moderate, anti-Trump Republican.

“When you dump millions of dollars into the airwaves by one group to basically attack another candidate, it’s going to have its impact,” J. Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at North Carolina’s Catawba College, told The Dispatch.

A May survey by Emerson Polling/The Hill found that Budd is garnering 43 percent of likely Republican primary voters, with McCrory at 16 percent. Budd’s lead has grown over the last few weeks: Just last month, Emerson found Budd polling at 38 percent support, compared to 22 percent for McCrory.

Emerson Polling also found that 61 percent of GOP primary voters said they were more likely to support the Trump-endorsed candidate. 

“The real question is: Can Budd use the Trump endorsement to solidify over 30 percent and come in first?” Bitzer said.

Down ballot, voters will make their picks for North Carolina’s 14 U.S. House seats, the state House and Senate seats in the North Carolina General Assembly, as well as some local city council and mayoral races.

In the open 13th District political newcomer and 26-year-old former college football player Bo Hines has also benefited from a Trump endorsement and the support of Club for Growth.*

That race features eight candidates, including attorney Kelly Daughtry, who has dropped a couple million of her own dollars on the campaign, former Rep. Renee Ellmers, and Army veteran Kent Keirsey. It’s unclear whether the endorsement will give Hines the edge to avoid a runoff.

Another closely-watched congressional race is the GOP primary in North Carolina’s 11th District, featuring a crowded field of candidates seeking to wrest the district from incumbent freshman and scandal-plagued Madison Cawthorn. Elected in 2020 at age 25, Cawthorn was initially lauded as a rising Republican star.

Since then he’s inflicted a plethora political wounds on himself. He’s run into trouble for driving with a revoked license and bringing a loaded firearm into an airport, and provoked questions of whether he ran afoul of federal insider trading laws. Other blunders have been more political: Following congressional redistricting, Cawthorn abruptly announced he would switch districts to run in a neighboring, safer Republican district. But then he reversed himself, deciding he would run in his old district after all.

He’s also come under fire for calling Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy a “thug,” and for claiming, without evidence, that lawmakers had invited him to an orgy and that he had witnessed lawmakers using cocaine. He later told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy he had exaggerated the tale.

A number of embarrassing images and videos have surfaced. This is on top of older allegations that he sexually harassed women that emerged in 2018. The fog of scandal surrounding the lawmaker has caused him to bleed support among prominent Republican leaders in his state.

Cawthorn faces seven challengers in the primary. North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis endorsed one of his opponents, state Sen. Chuck Edwards. 

Trump, who endorsed Cawthorn in March of last year, has shown some signs of souring on him. At an April rally in Selma, Trump explicitly endorsed Budd and Bo Hines. Cawthorn, he merely said, was “a great guy.”

“The big question for a lot of folks is, will all of this negative publicity affect this first-term incumbent, or will Trump’s endorsement or support be able to come through all of this,” Bitzer said. “The most vulnerable time for an incumbent is when they are running for their first reelection bid, and there is major negative news surrounding that incumbent. Cawthorn is getting both at the same time.”

But it’s unclear whether the scandals will sway voters of his district. Cawthorn has defended himself as the target of “blackmail.” 

“While all these races have individual characteristics and factors, including the money that has come with the Trump endorsement, Trump is obviously a major factor,” Dallas Woodhouse, the former executive director of the North Carolina GOP and current writer for state conservative paper Carolina Journal, told The Dispatch. “His candidate is in a strong position to win the Senate race and the two candidates in the two House seats that have been aligned with him are very competitive.”

The Senate race is expected to be one of the fiercely contested in the country come November since it could determine whether Democrats can hold the upper chamber. On the Democratic side, former chief justice of the state’s Supreme Court Cheri Beasley is likely to win the Democratic nomination—none of the remaining Democratic candidates on the ballot presents a serious challenge to Beasley. Her statewide win to the North Carolina Court of Appeals in 2008 was a historic first for the state, as she is a black woman.

While North Carolina has trended red in recent cycles, it is also the state that Donald Trump won by the smallest margin in 2020—by nearly 75,000 votes out of more than 5.5 million cast. But with Democrats facing national headwinds, Republicans are projecting confidence that the seat will stay in GOP control. The Cook Political Report in February rated the race at “Leans Republican.” Another forecasting group, Sabato’s Crystal Ball with the University of Virginia Center for Politics, also rated the race as “Leans Republican.”

“When it comes to November, Budd and most Republicans in the state are going to have the real advantage. It’s a classic midterm election. Presidential approval is low. The economy is a major issue,” Bitzer said.

An Emerson poll showed that Budd would beat presumptive Democratic nominee Beasley in the general election 48 percent to 41 percent, with 10 percent of the electorate undecided.

If Budd makes it to the general, Bitzer said, he “can play to the Trump base, to the Trump voter. Beasley has to thread a needle that is more moderate for a Democrat in this state—and that’s going to be an interesting strategy to watch unfold … she has to play much more to the middle than I think Budd necessarily has to.”

*Correction, May 17, 2022: This article initially incorrectly said Bo Hines is running in Ted Budd’s congressional district, but the new 13th District encompasses a different geographical area.

Harvest Prude is a former reporter at The Dispatch.