Why a group from outside NC is spending millions to influence the state's US Senate race

Club for Growth Action, a Washington, D.C., political action committee, has vowed to spend at least $10 million to boost Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd before the May 17 primary.

Posted Updated

Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter

North Carolina Republican voters will soon be inundated with an onslaught of messages over the airwaves from a Washington, D.C., group seeking to influence the outcome of the most contentious statewide primary election.

Club for Growth Action, a prominent political action committee that works to elect hard-line conservatives, said it plans to spend at least $10 million between now and the May 17 election to boost U.S. Rep. Ted Budd in the race to fill the seat retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr is vacating. Club for Growth’s future spending comes in addition to the $4 million it has already poured into the race.

The $14 million sum alone is 73% more than the $8.1 million the four leading candidates collectively raised last year. The PAC is making the largest investment of any outside group in the North Carolina primary—a bet that could determine the ideological direction of the Republican Party.

A Budd win would demonstrate the strength of a Trump endorsement, which Budd received in June. It would also reflect the influence an outside group could exert.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd of North Carolina stands to benefit from millions of dollars in outside spending from Club for Growth, a Washington, D.C. organization that is working to get him into the U.S. Senate. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

Budd has served in Congress since 2017, but he entered the race with minimal name recognition. Budd’s top primary opponent, former Gov. Pat McCrory—the only Republican governor the state has elected since the 1980s—is a narrow frontrunner, according to election experts and conservative polls. Mark Walker, another candidate, represented the Greensboro area in the U.S. House of Representatives from January 2015 to January 2021. He poses a challenge to Budd’s efforts to capture the state’s base of Trump supporters.

With the help of the Trump endorsement and Club for Growth’s millions of dollars, Budd could position himself as the party favorite.
Whoever wins the primary would take on presumptive Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley in what is expected to be one of the nation’s most expensive and competitive U.S. Senate races this year. The candidate who wins could help or hinder President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda by tilting the balance of the chamber that’s currently evenly split 50-50.

Army combat veteran Marjorie K. Eastman is also running.

David McIntosh, Club for Growth’s president, said his group and the Budd campaign “chose to kind of go dark” after the North Carolina Supreme Court in December decided to push back the election by 10 weeks to allow for challenges to congressional and legislative maps to work their way through the court system in time for this year’s elections.

McIntosh’s organization in December reported Budd was narrowly ahead of McCrory in a head-to-head matchup, while a survey Budd’s team commissioned of the four-person race showed him trailing McCrory but steadily narrowing the gap.

No single credible, nonpartisan poll of the North Carolina U.S. Senate GOP primary has been released.

“What we see is great support coming our direction,” Budd said in an interview with WRAL News. “And what makes my opposition really nervous is that we're growing in those polls and we're prepared to take the leap.”

McCrory and Walker both criticize the outside influence, accusing the group of putting out misleading ads. They’re even using that position as a selling point for their own campaigns.

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory addresses a crowd of Wake County Republicans during a March 15, 2022, event at the NC State Fairgrounds in Raleigh. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

“We're going against the typical inside Washington people who think they can buy a U.S. Senate seat, and my message to them is North Carolina Senate’s seat is not for sale and neither am I,” McCrory said.

On the campaign trail, Walker routinely pulls out his voting card to tell potential supporters that his vote is not for sale. He lags in fundraising and is seeking to broaden his appeal by traversing the state to host small gatherings with voters. He’s also touted supportive comments from Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, who has not formally endorsed any candidate.

“There's a reason these guys are not wanting to finance my operation and it is because I've always tried to be an independent voice,” Walker said. “When I get there, no special interest or D.C. super PAC is going to tell me how to vote.”

Budd defends the group’s involvement in the race, saying the money is simply a reflection of aligning policy views.

“They're for low taxes and economic growth for our country and I support those same principles as well,” he said.

What is Club for Growth?

Club for Growth was founded in 1999 and has developed into a highly influential organization with a network of nonprofits and political committees. For years, it supported candidates that campaigned on cutting taxes, regulations and spending. In 2008, the group went on the offensive against presidential candidate Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor known for his more populist economic policies.

But the group’s demand for strict fiscal conservatism has evolved with the rise of Trump. Club for Growth spent millions attacking Trump before the 2016 election and called the then-candidate the “worst kind of politician.” Trump took the group to task on Twitter, calling the organization “pathetic.”

But the group warmed up to Trump after he won the presidency and effectively took control of the Republican Party. While the group did not support Trump’s isolationist views on international trade and budget plans that raised the national deficit, it supported Trump’s 2020 reelection bid, prompting concerns that Club for Growth sacrificed its principles.

The organization now actively targets Trump critics.

“Voters will understand if you fight but don't necessarily win all the time,” McIntosh said. “But what they don't understand is when you go up there and stop fighting in Washington.”

The group has bankrolled several figures who have become outspoken voices within the GOP, including U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina, Lauren Boebert of Colorado and U.S. Sen. Tommy Tuberville of Alabama.

“Our mission is to elect champions to Congress for free markets, limited government, constitutional principles—men and women who will stand up in Washington against the entrenched interests there,” McIntosh said. He said the group won “85% of our races” in the last election.

The organization has about 10,000 members that contribute to candidates, he said.

But a handful of wealthy donors fund a large share of the group’s operations.

Club for Growth's website lists 18 endorsements, including two gubernatorial candidates, seven for U.S. Senate and nine for U.S. House.

McIntosh said Club for Growth has a two-step process when evaluating potential endorsements. The first step is to research a candidate’s voting history and speak with them about policy issues that might come up in the future. Of greatest importance to the organization are eight issues, with the most notable topics being spending cuts, low taxes, school choice and open and fair access to buying and selling goods overseas.

Once staff members vet the candidate, a recommendation is made to the organization’s board of directors for a final decision.

“They vote on each of the recommendations that we make at the staff level, and once that happens, then we're all in,” McIntosh said. “We're there to help do whatever it takes on our side of independent expenditures to make sure that Ted [Budd] wins the primary and then the general election.”

Who’s bankrolling the operation?

Filings with the Federal Election Commission show Club for Growth Action, the group’s political arm, raised $31.9 million this election cycle and spent $11.7 million nationwide, as of Jan. 31.

The largest share of money spent went to support Budd and oppose McCrory. By the end of January, the group had put in more than $4.3 million into the race.

Most of the money raised by the political action committee came from a small handful of billionaires.

Five of the 10 largest donations were from one man, Richard Uihlein, the founder of a massive shipping supplies company who has given Club for Growth Action at least $16.9 million. He and his wife, Liz, have an estimated net worth of about $4 billion.

Club for Growth cofounder Virginia James has contributed at least $4 million this election cycle. She’s a self-employed investor.

Republican meagdonor Jeff Yass has also contributed heavily to the group, donating $2.5 million this cycle.

Forbes Magazine listed him as the 58th wealthiest American in 2021, with a net worth of $12 billion. Yass is a cofounder of the Pennsylvania-based Susquehanna International Group, one of Wall Street's most successful trading firms.

“What we're seeing is that most of the folks who are wealthy and can contribute are doing so because they have a particular type of view that they think's important,” McIntosh said.

How impactful is Club for Growth?

Money alone doesn’t determine a candidate’s success. Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton outraised then-candidate Donald Trump in 2016 but lost. In the 2020 Democratic presidential contest, billionaire Michael Bloomberg finished in fourth place in the pledged delegate count despite a $1 billion self-financed campaign.

“You want every dollar you can get, and if you can raise one more dollar today and tomorrow, you'll do it,” said Doug Heye, a longtime GOP adviser who worked on three successful U.S. Senate campaigns in North Carolina. “But ultimately what matters is what's the lay of the land on voters.”

Asked if North Carolinians should be concerned about the outsize influence of a handful of contributors who don’t live in the state, McIntosh said he thinks individual North Carolina voters matter more than the donors.

“They're the ones that in the end matter way more than somebody who's put in a lot of money to support it,” he said. “What the person who contributes the money does is make sure they've got information.”

Money also offers momentum for candidates, said Catawba College political scientist Michael Bitzer. And Club for Growth is providing that.

“Particularly in competitive primary elections, money does equal some level of success,” Bitzer said. “I would rather be running a campaign with the type of money that's going to be pumped into this particular race than to have to struggle for that.”

What will North Carolina voters see in the coming months?

McIntosh said his team is prepared to spend whatever it takes to get Budd elected, even if that requires going beyond the $10 million they have budgeted to spend ahead of the primary.

The main messaging will be touting Trump's endorsement of Budd because the group’s research has proven voters are more likely to back Budd once they are made aware of the former president’s support.

Club for Growth is also going on the offensive with McCrory, but doesn’t plan to direct much attention at Walker over the airwaves because the group doesn’t want to elevate the opponent.

“I don't think we're going to need to [attack Walker],” McIntosh said. “People recognize he's not really viable. And they may like him and like his conservative vision that he puts there. But I think in the end it'll come down to a two-person race, so we can just let that happen naturally.”

Walker said the group views him as a threat to Budd and has privately tried to remove him from the race.

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina is seeking the Republican Party's nomination. He attended a March 15, 2022, event with Wake County Republicans at the NC State Fairgorunds in Raleigh. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

During a December meeting at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Palm Beach, Florida, Walker said he sat next to McIntosh and Trump and declined their request to bow out of the Senate race and instead run for a Greensboro congressional seat.

“I did look to Mr. McIntosh and I just told him, ‘While everybody's in the room, I want you to know that I don't think you have any doubt [or] understanding that I’m the best candidate running for the U.S. Senate. So I just want people to know that,’” Walker said in an interview with WRAL.

McIntosh wouldn’t share specifics of the conversation but accused Walker of being desperate for attention amid an uncertain political future.

“That happened as a private meeting and I'll leave it as a private meeting,” McIntosh said. “Mark is, at this point, a little bit desperate about what to do. He got squeezed out of his congressional seat. He has launched the Senate race, did not get President Trump's endorsement, isn't going to get President Trump's endorsement. A lot of people see that Ted is the more viable conservative.”

Club for Growth last week countered an ad released by McCrory. McCrory’s ad suggested that Budd excused Russian President Vladimir Putin’s rationale for invading Ukraine—a take that has been viewed as mostly false.

The group responded to McCrory’s ad with one of its own labeling the former governor as a “lying liberal.”

During a fundraiser Budd attended last month, Trump called Putin “savvy” and a “genius.” After filing his candidacy paperwork, Budd told CBS 17 News, “Putin is evil, but that doesn’t mean he’s not smart. He’s a very intelligent actor.”

McCrory later told WRAL that he took exception to Budd’s complimentary words of Putin.

“Anyone who bombs hospitals is not intelligent,” McCrory said. “They may be literate, but they're not intelligent.”

In an interview with WRAL, Budd was far more critical of Putin and stopped himself mid-sentence after calling the Russian president an “evil genius.”

“I would say he’s a thug and he’s evil and he has to be stopped,” Budd said.


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