North Carolina Senate race tests Trump’s power of support

When Ted Budd received a surprise endorsement from former President Donald Trump last year, he was a little-known congressman running for a Senate seat in North Carolina against some of the state’s most prominent Republicans, including a former governor.

As he enters the final stages before the May 17 state primary, Budd is hoping for a boost again, banking on the power of Trump’s support to put him at the head of a field that includes a dozen other Republicans.

“We feel like we have a strong momentum,” Budd told The Associated Press. “Whether it’s grassroots, survey trendlines, or fundraising, we think we’re in a very good place.”

Budd’s candidacy will serve as an early test of whether Trump’s support is strong enough to lift anyone from the relative obscurity to the GOP nomination for a critical Senate seat. A strong performance by Budd could provide clues as to how Trump-backed candidates will fare in other states, including Georgia, who will vote in quick succession after North Carolina.

The race “is going to be a test of the Trump effect on North Carolina among North Carolina Republicans, I think not just for North Carolina but nationally,” said Mike Rusher, a political adviser who previously worked for the state GOP Has.

Democrats have gained a foothold in the South in recent years, winning a Georgia presidential election in 2020 for the first time in 28 years and winning two Senate seats.

North Carolina has experienced similar demographic changes, driven by an influx of new residents into the Raleigh and Charlotte areas. But for now, Democrats are struggling to make the same progress in the state’s presidential and Senate elections. Barack Obama was the last Democratic presidential nominee to carry North Carolina in 2008, and no Democrat has won a Senate seat since Kay Hagan that same year.

Trump will return to the state Saturday for a rally in rural Johnston County, southeast of Raleigh. He was a boon to North Carolina Republicans in the 2020 campaign, boosting turnout so that GOP candidates — with few exceptions — won races up and down the vote even as Trump himself narrowly picked up a victory.

Budd is running for the seat of retired Republican Sen. Richard Burr against former Gov. Pat McCrory, who is seen as a moderate and has stayed away from Trump while supporting his economic policies. A dozen other Republicans are also seeking the nomination, including former US Rep. Mark Walker, who has defied Trump’s pleas to step down.

The winner is expected to face Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the state, in November’s general election. Like almost all statewide races, the general election was expected to be close, and a Democratic win could end the GOP’s hopes of regaining the Senate majority.

While McCrory entered the race as the most prominent candidate, Budd and his advisers are increasingly optimistic that his position will be strengthened in the final weeks of the race.

Budd called Trump’s endorsement “the single biggest factor in moving this campaign forward and gaining attention.” He has also benefited from millions of dollars in Super PAC spending on his behalf, including from the political wing of the Club for Growth. The group’s ads heavily feature Trump’s support, portraying Budd as a staunch conservative, highlighting McCrory’s past criticism of the former president and slamming him as a “disloyal, liberal loser.”

McCrory became governor in 2013 but lost re-election after signing a “bathroom bill” that targeted transgender people and cost the state billions.

Saturday’s rally comes amid questions about whether Trump’s influence is waning amid stumbling blocks in other states. Last month he withdrew his support for Rep. Mo Brooks, who was struggling to gain a foothold in the Alabama Senate primary. Last year, Sean Parnell, his recommended nominee for the Pennsylvania Senate, dropped out amid allegations of abuse by his ex-wife.

As advisers have warned he is setting himself up for failure by offering too many endorsements, Trump has held off picking sides in several competitive Senate contests, including in Missouri and Ohio, where an early vote is underway.

Trump sees Walker as a potential spoiler and has tried in vain to pressure him to drop out – a tactic he has used successfully in other competitions to increase the chances of his preferred candidates.

The leader must get more than 30% of the votes to avoid a runoff. Otherwise, the two first-place winners will have a runoff at the end of July.

“Look, we appreciate President Trump and the work he’s done for our country, but that doesn’t mean he makes the right decisions and sometimes gets bad advice,” Walker said in an interview. “And in this particular incident, he hitched his wagon to the wrong horse.”

McCrory, meanwhile, declined to poll this week, hinting he had lost his early advantage and saying it was time for a counterattack.

“This race will be a dead heat. It’s neck and neck right now and it’s amazing that we’re even in this position considering $7-8 million was spent against us by a DC advocacy group,” McCrory said in an untitled reference to Club for Growth Action.

Many voters are yet to make up their minds, with early in-person voting beginning April 28.

John Dismukes, 48, of Carolina Beach, describes himself as “100% undecided.” “I’m looking at all three,” he said.

Billy Shomaker, a retired Beech Mountain airline pilot, said he supported Budd regardless of Trump’s endorsement. “I like President Trump. I don’t like everything he does,” said Shomaker, 68.

Trump’s preferred candidates in North Carolina have not always been successful. In 2020, political newcomer Madison Cawthorn comfortably won a GOP Congressional runoff over Trump’s election.

But Trump soon embraced Cawthorn, who won the general election at the age of 25 and became one of the ex-president’s strongest supporters. Now Trump is returning the favor, introducing him as the assembly speaker and advocating his re-election, though Cawthorn has faced backlash over recent incendiary comments.

McCrory said he has his own political events on Saturday and would not share the stage with Budd, Cawthorn or Trump even if offered.

Trump “says I don’t represent his values,” McCrory said, referring to the former president’s words when endorsing Budd 10 months ago. “I agree with Trump’s policies. But yes, we might have different opinions on values.”

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Colvin reported from New York.

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