Trump endorsement shakes up GOP Senate primary in NC

Former President TrumpDonald TrumpTrump defends indicted GOP congressman House to vote Thursday on holding Bannon in contempt Youngkin calls for investigation into Loudoun County School Board amid sexual assault allegations MORE’s endorsement of Rep. Ted BuddTheodore (Ted) Paul BuddDemocratic retirements could make a tough midterm year even worse Democrats look to make debt ceiling a winning issue Veteran, author launches US Senate campaign in North Carolina MORE in North Carolina’s GOP Senate primary is setting off a round of finger-pointing among frustrated Republicans in the state.

The endorsement, made during a speech to the North Carolina GOP’s convention this month, came as a surprise to state party leaders and other candidates who had believed they were still in the running to receive the most sought-after endorsement in Republican politics. Budd found out about Trump’s decision only minutes before he made the announcement.

But the endorsement has also stirred concern among some Republicans that Trump may be elevating a candidate who they believe could be the least competitive of the top three GOP contenders in an expectedly fierce general election match-up next year.

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“He picked a losing horse,” one North Carolina Republican strategist said, arguing that while Budd’s image as a hard-line conservative and Trump loyalist would play well in the GOP primary, “he’s going to have a problem in the general.”

The strategist argued that Budd’s decision in December to join an amicus brief supporting a lawsuit challenging the results of the November presidential election in four states, as well as his vote against certifying President BidenJoe BidenWhite House: Window for finalizing sweeping budget package 'closing' Jayapal says tuition-free community college 'probably won't' be in spending plan Jan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt MORE’s Electoral College victory, pose a liability for Republicans, who are hoping to avoid relitigating the 2020 election during next year’s midterms.

Trump’s endorsement of Budd came moments after his daughter-in-law Lara TrumpLara TrumpPast criticism of Trump becomes potent weapon in GOP primaries Trump endorsement shakes up GOP Senate primary in NC Lara Trump calls on Americans at border to 'arm up and get guns and be ready' MORE announced at the convention that she would not mount a bid to replace retiring Sen. Richard BurrRichard Mauze BurrDemocratic incumbents bolster fundraising advantage in key Senate races McConnell gets GOP wake-up call Senate approves short-term debt ceiling increase MORE (R-N.C.) next year, putting to rest speculation that the current Republican field would have to contend with a member of the former president’s own family.

Two other top candidates in the GOP primary — former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark WalkerBradley (Mark) Mark WalkerWe are all paying for DeSantis' defiance of the First Amendment Democrats look to make debt ceiling a winning issue Veteran, author launches US Senate campaign in North Carolina MORE — have vented frustration with the way the endorsement unfolded, suggesting that the former president’s advisers and lingering political tensions influenced Trump’s decision to weigh in on the race.

“The audience reaction was telling: the President got bad advice in picking a Washington D.C. insider,” McCrory tweeted after Trump announced his support for Budd. “North Carolina voters will pick the best person to represent them – and I’m looking forward to them supporting us in the Primary and the General.”

Walker, who previously served as the No. 4 House Republican, has pinned blame on Trump’s former chief of staff Mark MeadowsMark MeadowsJan. 6 panel votes to hold Bannon in contempt Press: Steve Bannon behind bars in Capitol basement? Jan. 6 panel lays out criminal contempt case against Bannon MORE, a former congressman from North Carolina, saying that a year-old disagreement between Meadows and himself had factored into the endorsement.

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“My first thought — it was that Mark Meadows had orchestrated this whole event,” Walker told the USA Today Network over the weekend. He said that his endorsement last year of Rep. Madison Cawthorn over a Meadows family friend in the House race for North Carolina’s 11th Congressional District had caused “friction” with Trump’s former chief of staff.

Walker won a straw poll of delegates at the North Carolina state GOP convention this month with 44 percent support. He has suggested that Trump was not made aware of the results of the straw poll before announcing his endorsement for Budd.

Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist in North Carolina, said that Trump’s endorsement will almost certainly boost Budd in the primary, especially given that he lacks the kind of statewide profile of someone like McCrory, who has run for statewide office three times before.

A poll from the Republican polling firm Spry Strategies released in April showed McCrory leading the GOP primary field with 40 percent support, while Walker finished with 10.5 percent and Budd with 4.8 percent.

Trump’s endorsement of Budd could take the biggest toll on Walker, a staunch Trump ally who was counting on the former president’s support if Lara Trump decided against a run. In 2019, as he announced that he would not seek reelection to his House seat, Walker’s campaign said the former president told him that he would “enthusiastically back” his 2022 Senate bid.

“I would guess that Trump’s endorsement may give Budd a nudge, but Pat’s still got a big lead,” Wrenn said, adding that “Trump is kind of putting Walker in an awkward place.”

Budd’s campaign released an internal poll on Monday signaling the effect Trump’s endorsement could have on the race.

That survey showed McCrory leading Budd 45 percent to 19 percent, with Walker trailing in third at 12 percent support. When respondents were told that Trump had endorsed Budd, his support surged to 46 percent, while McCrory’s shrank to 27 percent and Walker’s to 8 percent.

“We feel good about our chances,” Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd’s campaign, said in a statement. “McCrory’s donors need to recognize that donating to the McCrory campaign now makes about as much sense as buying stock in the Titanic after she hit the iceberg.”

Despite Trump’s endorsement, other Republican leaders are staying out of the primary for now.

The National Republican Senatorial Committee has indicated that it will remain neutral in the 2022 primaries. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellFixing Congress requires fixing how it legislates McConnell: GOP should focus on future, not 'rehash' 2020 Hoyer: Democrats 'committed' to Oct. 31 timeline for Biden's agenda MORE (R-Ky.), who has split with Trump in recent months, hasn’t weighed in on the race, though he noted on Monday that he would intervene in primaries “if necessary.”

The North Carolina Republican Party did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment on Trump’s endorsement. But in a previous statement to the Washington Examiner, state party Chairman Michael Whatley said that he was not aware of Trump’s plans to endorse Budd and insisted that the state GOP would remain neutral in the primary.

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“When President Trump endorsed Congressman Ted Budd for U.S. Senate, he was not speaking on behalf of the NCGOP,” Whatley said. “He made the endorsement completely independently, and the NCGOP was not aware of the endorsement prior to his speech. The NCGOP will continue to remain neutral in all primary races.”

The Senate race in North Carolina is expected to be among the most competitive of the 2022 cycle. While Trump carried the state twice and Democrats failed to unseat Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenate GOP signals they'll help bail out Biden's Fed chair GOP rallies around Manchin, Sinema Advocates frustrated by shrinking legal migration under Biden MORE (R-N.C.) last year, Burr’s retirement and the potential for a bruising Republican primary has fueled Democrats’ hopes of capturing the open seat.

While Trump still commands broad support among North Carolina GOP voters, even some Republicans concede that his endorsement alone may not be enough to propel Republicans across the finish line next year, noting that North Carolina’s 2022 Senate race will be a critical test of Trump’s staying power in a perennial battleground state.

“We’ve got to stop looking at his endorsement as the end-all, be-all here,” one North Carolina GOP operative said. “The Democrats are over there saying that all Republicans care about now is Donald Trump, and I don’t want to prove them right. They’re going to hang that around our necks.”