NC GOP's US Senate primary turns personal as Budd, Walker tangle for Trump base

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is seeking to appeal to more moderate voters, while U.S. Rep. Ted Budd and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker message to supporters of former President Donald Trump.

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Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter

When then-U.S. Rep. Mark Walker stepped out of a Washington congressional building in late 2019, he thought he had reached an understanding with a colleague.

He planned to mount a U.S. Senate bid for the seat being vacated by retiring North Carolina Republican Sen. Richard Burr. Walker would leave the House to avoid a potential congressional primary fight with U.S. Rep. Ted. Budd, a fellow Greensboro-area representative.

“‘We’ll do this: I won't run against you in the House race,’” Walker recalls telling Budd in their meeting. “‘I'll get out and support you where you can run unopposed. And I'd love to have your support running for the US Senate.’ … I told him I thought we had kind of an agreement. There was nothing in writing.”

The conversation left Budd rattled to the point where he took contemporaneous notes. He says Walker’s characterization of such an agreement doesn't match his recollection.

“I’m a bit surprised and shocked at that,” Budd said of Walker’s comments. “...That’s exactly not the narrative.”

Public bickering between two candidates of the same party isn’t unusual in a North Carolina primary, but sharing private conversations is uncommon. The falling out between Budd and Walker illustrates just how heated the primary has become and how high the stakes are in a race that could tilt the balance of an evenly split U.S. Senate and stifle President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda.

Budd and Walker are fighting to capture a wing of the party that tilts further right ideologically, and that battle has intensified ever since former President Donald Trump endorsed Budd and unsuccessfully tried to get Walker out of the Senate race.

The tension between the two candidates and Budd’s lack of visibility on the campaign trail in recent months has in turn helped former Gov. Pat McCrory maintain what political scientists and conservative polls view as a slim lead. Meanwhile, Army combat veteran Marjorie K. Eastman is seen as unlikely to win but could peel off enough votes from competitors to force a runoff contest in July.

The intraparty fight among North Carolina Republicans reflects major stylistic differences between the candidates and a larger fight over North Carolina’s future leadership.

The May 17 primary winner 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. If no Republican candidate captures at least 30% of the vote, the two highest vote-getters would advance to a July 26 runoff.

Budd planning to ramp up NC presence

Budd has been less visible on the campaign trail than his opponents.

David McIntosh, president of political action committee Club for Growth Action, said his group plans to spend $10 million between now and the election to boost Budd’s profile. The move comes in addition to $4 million the group has already put in to support Budd and attack McCrory.

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

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)
The North Carolina Supreme Court in December decided to push back the statewide primary election to allow legislative and congressional maps to work their way through the court system. McIntosh said this prompted his group and the Budd campaign to “kind of go dark,” stalling the congressman’s momentum.

McCrory and Walker have attacked Budd’s lack of visibility, but Budd has pushed back.

“Whenever I’m not having votes in Washington, D.C., I’m here in North Carolina,” Budd said. “We’ve been to most all of the counties and a few more to go.”

On Jan. 25, Walker and McCrory posed for a photo at an event in Monroe with an empty chair between the two of them to represent Budd’s absence. Eastman, who wasn’t pictured, also attended.

On March 15, Budd had to leave a Wake County GOP convention event before his scheduled speaking time so he could make a flight back to Washington.

Eric Lupo, a 73-year-old Raleigh businessman who attended the event, said he’s torn between McCrory and Walker.

“I’m a conservative person, but I’m not far-right,” Lupo said. “I think that Budd is more hard-line and he’s all my way or no way.”

Budd’s website lists “eliminating big tech corruption” and “stopping socialism” among his top priorities. He also touts his business experience as the owner of a gun store and support for tax cuts Trump enacted.

Budd declined to participate in a February debate held at a GOP conference in Raleigh, which prompted McCrory to take aim at a congressman unable to defend himself. He frequently turned to an empty podium on stage. Walker has similarly criticized Budd.

“He's been a ghost, but there's something larger: He does not want to have to be on the same stage with me because it creates a contrast,” Walker said in an interview.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd has done more interviews than his top U.S. Senate competitors, according to a WRAL analysis of campaign schedules as of mid-March. McCrory's campaign declined to share the information.

Budd had said he wouldn’t entertain conversations about debates until candidate filing closed, which it did on March 4. More than a week after filing closed, Budd still declined to say whether he’d agree to a single debate. “I’m certainly open to it, but we’re going to consider our options,” Budd said.

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, said Budd could benefit from being more active on the campaign trail.

“Skipping debates is not a way to increase your opportunities to meet and work with the voters who are going to be deciding your candidate’s fate,” Bitzer said.

With the election nearing, Budd has become more active on the campaign trail, sharing more interactions he has with voters on his social media pages. Walker, McCrory and Eastman for months have more frequently posted photos of themselves speaking at larger forums and smaller in-state gatherings.

Army combat veteran Marjorie K. Eastman is seeking the Republican Party's nomination for U.S. Senate. (photo by Bryan Anderson)

“North Carolinians, they want to hear and they want to see their leaders,” Eastman said. “Not showing up to a debate, in my mind, that doesn't make sense. One of the things we learn in the military is where you put yourself is what you prioritize. That's why you can see I am everywhere across North Carolina.”

McCrory banking on broader appeal

McCrory is presenting himself as the lone Washington outsider in the race with a pathway to victory.

But the outsider branding could prove challenging because he’s spent decades as an elected official and could be seen by some as an establishment choice.

McCrory, whose political career started in 1989 when he was elected to the Charlotte City Council, served as the city’s mayor from 1995 to 2009. He’s 1-for-3 in statewide gubernatorial general election contests, losing in 2008 and 2016 to Democrats Bev Perdue and Roy Cooper. He handily defeated Democrat Walter Dalton in 2012.

Walker said voters should be concerned that McCrory’s 2016 reelection loss came at a time when other statewide Republican candidates won.

“If you can't win when you have the cover of Donald Trump and [former Lt. Gov.] Dan Forest, and supermajorities in the House, how in the world do you think you can win when you're the singular focus of [Democratic Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer and all the money coming in from New York and California?” Walker said.

After his reelection defeat, McCrory unsuccessfully sought a position within the Trump administration, privately meeting with the president-elect in December 2016.

“I have over 30 years of private sector experience,” McCrory said in an interview. “It's kind of ironic I have some of my opponents calling me a career politician. I've actually only had one full-time political job and that was for four years.”

McCrory rose up the ranks of Duke Energy during his 28-year tenure at the public utility. He also later joined his brother’s Charlotte-based sales consulting firm. After his 2016 reelection loss, he stayed in GOP voters’ ears through a popular radio show but didn’t cater to the Trump loyalists in the state he might need to win this year’s primary.

On Nov. 23, 2020, McCrory accused Trump of “destroying democracy” through his false claims of winning the presidential election.

The slim frontrunner seeks a return to a more cordial, self-deprecating style of politics that former President Ronald Reagan displayed in the 1980s.

“[Reagan] was careful in his words, and yet he was also self-deprecating,” McCrory said. “And he had a unique style that I think we Republicans need to get back to.”

McCrory claims to be the only candidate with a track record of legislative accomplishments.

In January 2013, when McCrory first took office, the state’s unemployment rate hit 10%. By the end of his term, it had fallen below 5%. On the campaign trail, he often discusses the need to address labor shortages and support American businesses.

FILE - In this Thursday, Jan. 16, 2020, file photo, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory participates in a University of North Carolina Institute of Politics forum in Chapel Hill, N.C.  McCrory says he’ll run for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina in hopes of succeeding the retiring Sen. Richard Burr. The one-term governor revealed his plans Wednesday, April 14, 2021, on his Charlotte-area radio show.  (AP Photo/Gerry Broome, File)

McCrory also faced a series of struggles during his tenure, including the passage of House Bill 2, the so-called “bathroom bill.” The 2016 bill required people to use restrooms at North Carolina schools and government buildings that corresponded to their gender assigned at birth. The measure was seen as discriminatory toward transgender residents and prompted businesses and the NCAA to scale back operations in North Carolina.

When asked if he regrets signing the bill, McCrory declined to give an answer.

“I have a record of achievement and accomplishment and I’ve kept my promises,” McCrory said. “The two main people I'm running against, I don't know of anything they've accomplished while they've been in Washington, D.C. Do you?”

Walker said he was proud to get a balanced budget amendment onto the U.S. House floor during his time in office. His website notes he co-sponsored more than 50 bills that the U.S. House passed, including six that became law. Former President Barack Obama signed a bill Walker helped draft to combat human trafficking.

“When it comes to the work, I'll match my record in six years with Pat McCrory’s 30-year record,” Walker said.

Budd said he sponsored or played a role in drafting over 50 pieces of legislation that passed the U.S. House. He also cited efforts to improve services to military veterans and combat opioid addiction.

Walker a thorn in the side of Budd, Trump

Walker’s decision to stay in the Senate race proved savvy after a state court in February enacted a voting map that made the 6th Congressional District—where Walker had been mulling a run—a relatively safe Democratic seat.

The former pastor has since tried to portray himself as the candidate whose views are closer aligned to Trump than Budd.

“Every point that Walker gets is more likely to be at Ted Budd’s expense than anyone else's,” said Doug Heye, a longtime GOP adviser who worked on three successful U.S. Senate campaigns in North Carolina.

Trump doubled down on his endorsement of Budd in a Jan. 24 statement, writing, “Ted Budd is the ONLY U.S. Senate candidate in North Carolina who has my Complete and Total Endorsement!"

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)

But the former president has since expressed doubts about Budd’s prospects. At a fundraiser in New Orleans this month, Trump turned to state GOP Chairman Michael Whatley and asked him how Budd was doing and encouraged the state party to get Walker out of the race.

Whatley confirmed the interaction, which was first reported by Politico, and said he appreciated the shout-out from Trump. In an interview with WRAL, Whatley noted the party typically stays out of primary fights and supports whichever candidate advances to the general election.

“Mark Walker’s in the race,” Whatley said. “He is going to be one of those candidates that is going to compete in the primary and I think any one of these candidates coming out of that primary is going to be better at selling a positive, proactive, pro-family agenda here in North Carolina better than the Democrats.”

Budd said he’s only been reaffirmed by Trump’s comments.

“I had friends that were there from Louisiana that thought they were very positive comments in my direction,” Budd said. “I'm grateful for President Trump's endorsement, his full unequivocal endorsement.”

But at a Wake County GOP event last week, Trump shared a pre-recorded message to those in attendance in which he signaled some doubts about candidates he’s endorsed. “Your candidates are incredible, most of whom I’ve endorsed,” Trump said. “Hopefully I’ve done the right ones, but I think I have.”

Also looming over the race is a potential endorsement from one of the state’s most high-profile Republicans, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson. Robinson is the state’s first Black lieutenant governor and is expected to run for governor in 2024. Robinson has not endorsed any U.S. Senate candidate, despite making praiseworthy comments of Walker.

Trump has had an unsuccessful track record of candidates he’s supported in competitive GOP primaries in the state. U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers lost in 2016 to a congressional colleague by 30 points despite having Trump’s support. U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn handily defeated Trump-backed realtor Lynda Bennett in 2020.

“Just those two dynamics there, they call into question how much influence does the president have over the Republican primary electorate,” said Bitzer, the political scientist.

Ron Tanciar, a retired 71-year-old Wake Forest resident who voted for Trump in 2016 and 2020, said he’s completely undecided and will turn to campaign websites and online videos of the candidates to make up his mind rather than rely on Trump’s stamp of approval. He said sustainable economic growth and high gas and food prices are of greatest importance to him.

“You personally take the time to do your research on the candidate that you think you want to vote for,” Tanciar said. “Even if somebody else supports him or says he’s the next best thing since sliced bread, you make sure that you do your homework.”