Smart tactic or missed opportunity? Budd is the latest GOP frontrunner to avoid debates

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd has avoided four U.S. Senate debates. His top GOP primary opponents are taking aim at the lack of participation as Budd gains momentum.

Posted Updated

Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter
RALEIGH, N.C. — At a February debate, former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory turned to his right to confront his top opponent in the state’s race for an open U.S. Senate seat.

Asked about fiscal responsibility, McCrory cited his success in reducing unemployment as governor and criticized U.S. Rep. Ted Budd for supporting a bill early into the Covid-19 pandemic that provided Americans with stimulus check payments—a measure McCrory viewed as a contributor to employers struggling to find people to work.

Budd didn't respond to the attack. The reason: he wasn’t there.

An empty space on the debate stage stood in his place.

“Should we give a minute to the empty podium,” quipped Marjorie K. Eastman, an Army combat veteran and opponent to Budd.

Donna King, a moderator at the debate who serves as editor-in-chief of the conservative Carolina Journal website, had noted earlier to the laughter of those in attendance that a spot for Budd was available “if he were to arrive.”

Budd, the Republican frontrunner in the race to fill retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Burr’s seat, is testing a tactic that circumvents one of the traditional ways voters get to know candidates. By avoiding debates, the congressman has made a strategic bet that campaign events and millions of dollars in advertisements will be enough to secure his victory.

With the May 17 primary election one month away, Budd hasn’t set foot on a debate stage. He has avoided or not agreed to participate in at least four debates.

It’s a choice that reflects a growing national trend, as high-profile candidates in other U.S. Senate races also show a reluctance to participate.

Indeed, debate dodging is becoming a growing practice: The Republican National Committee on Thursday said it would require GOP presidential candidates to abstain from debates sanctioned by the Commission on Presidential Debates because it believed the commission was “biased.” The commission, which has overseen the process for decades, didn’t respond to a request for comment.

Political analysts say the avoidance strategy protects candidates from being outmatched by an underdog or from unforced gaffes that might end up in political attack ads.

“One way to avoid making a mistake is just by not doing it,” said Doug Heye, a Republican strategist who worked on three successful U.S. Senate campaigns in North Carolina.

Budd shifts tone on debates

Budd has more to lose than his competitors. He possesses a 10-point lead over McCrory, according to a WRAL News poll released last week. And his top opponents are polished speakers, each equipped to close the gap on the debate floor. McCrory hosted a popular talk radio show after his 2016 gubernatorial reelection defeat. And former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker was a pastor for 16 years.

Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd, described McCrory and Walker as highly skilled debaters. “We've never disputed anything like that," he said. "I think Ted could hold his own just fine.”

For much of the 2022 election cycle, Budd had said he wouldn’t entertain the conversation of a debate until candidate filing ended, which it did on March 3. He then adjusted his tone, noting he’d be open to debating but would consider his options.
More than a month later, Budd has ascended in the polls with help from sizable outside spending and endorsements from the state’s top Republican executive officeholder, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and former President Donald Trump, the de facto leader of the Republican Party nationally.
In addition to the ABC11/Carolina Journal debate that Budd missed in February, he also skipped a WRAL News debate on Thursday and has not accepted invitations for a Spectrum News debate on Wednesday or one in High Point that Nexstar Media Group is scheduled to host on April 26.

Budd declined an interview request to discuss his debate strategy.

Some political observers don’t foresee any damage to Budd over his lack of participation at such events given the endorsements he’s received and high-profile backers of his campaign.

“I truthfully think it's no impact,” said King, a February debate moderator.

Club for Growth Action, a Washington, D.C., political action committee, has spent about $11 million to boost Budd ahead of the primary election. It plans to spend at least another $3 million by May 17.

Candidates dodge 2022 primary debates

Budd’s decision to skip debates reflects a new phenomenon of candidates not debating within their own parties, according to Heye, the longtime GOP strategist.

Herschel Walker, a Republican Georgia U.S. Senate candidate and former football star with Trump’s support, has come under fire for declining to debate his primary competitors.

Mehmet Oz, the Trump-backed former TV personality who is running for a Pennsylvania U.S. Senate seat, had pushed for a one-on-one debate with infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci instead of his GOP opponents. He skipped a primary debate in February. On Thursday, a Pennsylvania television station announced Oz agreed to an April 25 debate with four other candidates, including businessman David McCormick.

Oz and Herschel Walker’s campaigns didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Felts, the Budd adviser, questioned the value of debates, saying in an interview that the congressman found it more worthwhile for Budd to speak face-to-face with voters instead. On Thursday, the day of the WRAL debate, Budd was in Johnston and Wake counties for lunch and dinner events, including one featuring Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son.

A schedule provided by Felts in mid-March showed Budd participated in more campaign events than Mark Walker or Eastman. McCrory’s campaign said it didn’t have the staffing capacity to provide a list of events the former governor had attended since the start of 2022.

“Ted Budd has never gone dark in any way, shape or form,” Felts said. “We've never taken the foot off the gas.”

He said he didn’t think undecided voters would be swayed by a debate and that it’s impossible for one to “point to a single debate in any primary here in North Carolina in the 21st century that has made any sort of significant difference.”

McCrory said after Thursday’s debate that Budd’s lack of visibility “may work, but our nation and our state loses.”

Walker said he thinks Budd is receiving questionable advice.

“He hasn't shown up for the first two [debates],” Walker said during Thursday’s debate. “He won't show up tonight. And I'll say this right now: He will not show up for the final two either. You know why? Because they won't allow him.”

Felts pushed back on characterizations that Budd is being restricted by his own campaign or outside interests. “He makes his decisions,” Felts said. “He runs the campaign he wants to run.”

Strategy working for Budd

Budd’s method of campaigning has worked so far, according to Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist. Multiple polls released this month show Budd ahead of McCrory by double digits and well ahead of the rest of the pack.

“I'm a little surprised the strategy's working as well as it is of not debating,” Cooper said.

A WRAL News online survey of likely Republican primary voters shows Budd with 33% support, McCrory with 23%, Walker with 7% and Eastman at 2%. One in three respondents said they were undecided.
U.S. Rep. Ted Budd has a 10-point lead over former Gov. Pat McCrory in a WRAL News poll of Republican primary voters ahead of the May 17 election. But many voters are still undecided.

The poll, which was conducted from April 6 to 10 by SurveyUSA, reported a margin of error of 5 percentage points.

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, thinks Budd could win if he continues his tactics.

“The strategy [of not debating] seems to be playing to the dynamics of the time as a frontrunner,” he said. “If the majority of the GOP primary electorate is Trump-supportive, then that strength may be sufficient to keep in the lead going into the homestretch.”


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