NC Republican primary key test of Trump’s sway
The North Carolina Republican Senate primary is set to be an early barometer of the power of former President Trump’s endorsement as he seeks to be a difference-maker in a marquee Senate race.
Trump issued a surprise endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd in June, giving the third-term conservative lawmaker a boost with grassroots voters in a three-way GOP primary with former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker. But it is largely McCrory’s time as the governor of North Carolina from 2013 to 2017 that makes the primary to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) such a crucial gauge of Trump’s sway.
The former president has issued endorsements in a handful of other high-profile Senate races, but most partisan primaries are packed with Trump-aligned candidates, meaning an endorsement for one candidate inherently narrows the paths for the others. But in North Carolina, Trump’s endorsement is seeking to elevate a House backbencher with low statewide name recognition over a former governor who is less ideologically affiliated with Trump and more broadly known.
“I think Trump’s endorsement is a factor in this primary. Others include who can raise the most money day by day, and ideology is a factor. But Trump’s endorsement is also a factor, and the outcome could well tell us some facts about the strength of Trump’s endorsement and clarify how much that matters,” said North Carolina GOP strategist Carter Wrenn.
Trump’s endorsement, which he issued at the North Carolina GOP convention, set off celebrations in Budd’s campaign and recriminations among his rivals, who were surprised by the early support.
It also had an immediate impact for Budd, with his campaign flaunting the subsequent slew of headlines and gush of donations.
“We saw an immediate uptick in low-dollar donations starting 90 seconds after President Trump endorsed Ted from the stage of the N.C. GOP convention,” said Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd. “We already had a campaign plan with multiple lanes to victory for Ted prior to the endorsement, and President Trump’s endorsement has widened those lanes and opened up other pathways to victory as well.”
But Budd has not seen a consistent rise in the polls in the months since, and many surveys still show him with stubbornly low name recognition among voters, fueling speculation the endorsement came too early.
“That the Trump endorsement did not push anyone out of the race and still hasn’t provided a real name ID boost for Budd makes the early timing of the endorsement baffling,” said Republican strategist Doug Heye.
Still, the endorsement is anticipated to be the centerpiece of Budd’s primary campaign.
The GOP grassroots remains largely enthralled with the former president, and with a primary electorate that is made up largely of hard-line conservatives rather than those from all corners of the Republican Party, Trump’s endorsement is still expected to be a key tool to boosting name recognition.
“He still has over, what is it, 90 percent approval within the Republican Party? And those are the voters that vote in the Republican primary,” said a former Trump administration official. “Getting his endorsement, I would think that’s a goal of any Republican candidate running for any office if they hope to be viable.”
A recent poll from the anti-tax Club for Growth, which endorsed Budd, shows the power of the former president’s endorsement. The survey, released last week and conducted in June, showed Budd trailing McCrory by a 45-21 margin among likely primary voters but jumping ahead to a 52-28 lead once those voters are informed of the endorsement.
Those results underscore that Budd maintains a path to a primary victory — if he wields the endorsement effectively.
“The impact of the Trump endorsement, in sort of its simplest form, gives Budd a path where one otherwise would not have existed for him in this kind of a race,” said a GOP strategist involved in the Senate race. “We’ll see what the impact of it is moving forward, we’ll see how the Budd campaign can capitalize on it from a fundraising perspective. They didn’t do a good job the first time.”
“In any other normal year,” the source added, “Pat McCrory would already have this primary sewn up.”
Republicans universally say the endorsement remains a huge boost but that it’s on Budd and his allies to raise and spend money to publicize it to voters.
That effort is already underway. The Club for Growth is expected to drop at least $10 million to boost Budd, and it put out an ad earlier this month focusing solely on Trump’s speech in June announcing his support.
“The fact that they’re spending that much money right now just to let people know that Trump and Budd are connected shows you that they really are concerned that that is not getting across,” said one prominent North Carolina political observer.
“You will see Trump flags flying in the yards, you will see Trump signs along the road to this very day. The Trump factor alone is so huge in the state, but if they don’t know Ted Budd and that he’s connected, it’s a huge problem against somebody with as much standing and name recognition as a former governor like Pat McCrory.”
To be sure, publicizing the endorsement is not a panacea for Budd’s bid, but Trump’s support is a message he’ll be able to stump on for the entirety of the primary against his opponents.
“I don’t think it’s a silver bullet. I think if it was a silver bullet, when it happened, Congressman Budd would have taken a 40-point jump in the polls. But it’s a bullet that no one else in the race has,” said Michele Woodhouse, the chair of the North Carolina 11th Congressional District GOP.
McCrory has looked to offset Budd’s Trump advantage by seizing on concerns that the congressman could face headwinds in a general election.
Republicans worry that leaning on Trump alone will not be enough in a swing state like North Carolina, where appealing to moderates in urban and suburban centers is paramount.
“You’re not going to elect a candidate in a purple state whose only argument for voting for him is that he’s endorsed by Donald Trump,” the strategist working in the race said. “You got to have candidates who can stand on their own two feet and not be totally dependent on the political support of Donald Trump in order to get elected. Ted Budd seems totally complacent that that’s his existence.”
Those concerns were only exacerbated last week after The Washington Post published a story detailing the Budd family’s involvement in the bankruptcy of a company called AgriBioTech, which cost farmers millions of dollars.
Still, just as touting Trump’s endorsement is not a silver bullet for Budd, neither is pouncing on general election concerns one for McCrory.
“The problem is that our primary politics are so one-sided, either super liberal or super conservative, that I don’t know if that argument has enough to make it,” said the prominent observer.
Beyond the contenders in the race, the primary also holds significance for Trump, who is known to wield his endorsement as an example of his power in the party. The former president has an overwhelmingly successful, if not perfect, record in his endorsements, but his announcement for Budd is one of his first since leaving office and being deplatformed from social media, potentially heightening its importance for his brand.
“Trump’s tried to create a fiction, which is that ‘I rule the Republican Party, I control the Republican Party,’ ” said Wrenn. “I think if Budd doesn’t win the primary, it’s a problem for Trump. If Budd does win, then Trump will try to use it to promote his fiction.”
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