GOP scrambles to unify in divisive North Carolina Senate primary

Republicans are rushing to coalesce around Rep. Ted Budd (R-N.C.) as their nominee to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) amid a chaotic and expensive primary contest that they worry could set them back ahead of the November general election. 

After trailing his main primary opponent, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory, in the polls for months, Budd has emerged as the front-runner in the race, bolstered by the endorsement of former President Trump and millions of dollars in spending by the conservative Club for Growth Action.  

But Budd is still far from a lock for the GOP Senate nod and still faces at least a small possibility of a primary runoff if he’s unable to breach the 30-percent threshold needed to win the nomination outright.  

“He’s in a pretty good position with a 10-point lead a month before the primary, but you can’t say the race is settled,” said Carter Wrenn, a veteran Republican strategist in North Carolina. “They also show there’s a pretty big undecided vote out there. It’s like everything in politics. It could change.” 

After spending months trailing McCrory in the polls, Budd has emerged as the prohibitive favorite to win the GOP nomination. One survey from The Hill and Emerson College released earlier this month showed him leading McCrory by a 16-point margin, while a WRAL-TV/SurveyUSA poll out last week put him ahead by 10 points. 

He’s also begun to rack up endorsements from high-profile North Carolina Republicans, like state Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who announced his support for Budd at Trump’s rally in the state earlier this month. 

Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd’s campaign, attributed the congressman’s recent rise in the polls to a combination of a robust voter contact program and Trump’s recent efforts to boost Budd, saying that the former president’s rally “was like turning on a light switch.”  

“The campaign has accelerated – it’s come together a lot more quickly than we anticipated, and I think a lot of that can be attributed to the Trump rally,” Felts said. “People were starting to pay attention and then the Donald Trump rally was announced.” 

Still, he’s facing stiff competition in the May 17 Senate primary. Despite Budd’s recent rise in public polling, McCrory narrowly outpaced him in fundraising in the first three months of the year and currently leads him in overall cash on hand.  

At the same time, McCrory and another Republican rival, former Rep. Mark Walker (R-N.C.), have repeatedly hammered Budd over everything from his absence from two GOP primary debates to the fact that Club for Growth is pouring some $15 million into the state to boost Budd. 

In the first television ad of his Senate campaign, McCrory sought to cast Budd as sympathetic toward Russian President Vladimir Putin amid Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine. That ad selectively quoted the North Carolina congressman describing Putin as a “very intelligent actor.” 

McCrory has also accused Club for Growth of effectively trying to buy the primary for Budd, accusing him at a GOP primary debate last week of being “owned by a special interest group out of D.C.” 

Walker, for his part, has struggled to break double-digits in public polling, but has insisted on remaining in the race even after Trump sought to lure him out by promising him an endorsement if he were to run instead for his old House seat.  

Democrats, meanwhile, have coalesced around the candidacy of former state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, who has already far surpassed any of her Republican rivals in the money race and faces only nominal opposition in the May primary. 

Beasley raised just shy of $3.7 million in the first quarter of 2022 and now has nearly $2 million more in the bank than McCrory, according to their latest filings with the Federal Election Commission (FEC). 

In one sign that Republicans are getting more serious about protecting Burr’s seat, Senate Leadership Fund (SLF), the main super PAC affiliated with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), announced this week that it had booked nearly $28 million in ad reservations for the fall.  

That was the second largest portion of a massive $141 million investment and the most the group is spending in a state where Republicans are defending a Senate seat, signaling that the GOP is anticipating a contentious and expensive general election fight this year. 

“You hope for the best, plan for the worst,” Felts said. “The fact is North Carolina is a competitive state. There’s no two ways about that. We’re fully anticipating a competitive race. We gotta run hard.”  

“We don’t anticipate running away with anything,” he added. “It’s going to be a very competitive election and that’s what we’re preparing for.”  

Still, Democrats are facing tough political headwinds this year that threaten to complicate their path to victory in the North Carolina race. For one, the party of the president tends to lose ground in Congress in midterm elections. Making things even worse for Democrats is the fact that President Biden’s approval ratings are well underwater.  

Bruce Thompson, a Raleigh-based Democratic lobbyist, said that Beasley “is a great candidate” with the potential to drive Democratic turnout in a year when lagging motivation among the party’s voters has emerged as a real concern among Democratic strategists and officials. 

Nevertheless, he acknowledged, “it’s an uphill battle for her.”  

“I think she’s someone who, in a time when it doesn’t seem like Democratic voters are motivated to get out, she’s a candidate who I think excites Democratic voters,” Thompson said. 

“But the difficulty is, these campaigns are so national and she’s going to get tied to whatever’s going on with Biden,” he continued. “A lot of these races come down to things that don’t even impact the state of North Carolina. It’s just the national perception of what’s going on. That makes it difficult for a candidate to get through and talk about issues that matter to North Carolina.” 

Still, Democrats are hoping that even a slight improvement in Biden’s approval rating, combined with the divisiveness of the Republican Senate primary, could give them an advantage once the general election campaign starts in earnest this fall.  

“While the Republican candidates attack each other in their nasty primary, Cheri Beasley is building a coalition of support across North Carolina by meeting voters where they are and listening to North Carolinians who are eager to elect a Senator with the independence and integrity Cheri has shown throughout her public service,” Dory MacMillan, a spokesperson for Beasley’s campaign, said in a statement.  

“The Beasley campaign is focused on growing support for our campaign and earning the resources that will be key to winning in November.”   

Wrenn, the Republican strategist, waved off the notion that the contentious primary season would damage the eventual nominee ahead of the general election match-up, insisting that it would take a “mammoth political earthquake” to reverse Biden’s and his party’s fortunes before November. 

But, Wrenn warned, the GOP can’t afford to take the race for granted. 

“Is there a scenario in which the Democrats could win? Oh yeah,” Wrenn said. “Even in a good Republican election year, this is such a balanced state that the Republicans aren’t going to win by 10 points. There are still scenarios that could work out for the Democrats.” 

Tags Donald Trump Mark Walker North Carolina North Carolina Senate Race Pat McCrory Pat McCrory Phil Berger Richard Burr Ted Budd Vladimir Putin

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