Trump's staying power in NC politics at stake after rally bolstering hardline Republicans

Former President Donald Trump is supporting U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn's reelection bid. He's also endorsed Bo Hines for a Triangle congressional seat and Ted Budd for U.S. Senate.

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Bryan Anderson
, WRAL state government reporter

Former President Donald Trump addressed several thousand of his supporters in Johnston County on Saturday, putting his reputation on the line to tout his support for a string of North Carolina Republicans seeking the GOP nomination in competitive congressional races.

"In many ways, a bad (Republican In Name Only) is worse than a Democrat because you don't know where they're coming from," Trump told the crowd.

The candidates Trump supports represent a wing of the party that is further right ideologically, and in some cases, heavily opposed by veteran politicians. The split is perhaps most visible for one of Trump’s most divisive supporters scheduled to speak at the event.

U.S. Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who has irritated longtime officeholders with attacks against members of his own party and positions out of step with prevailing GOP attitudes, is running for reelection in the state’s westernmost district. He’s being challenged by seven other Republican candidates in the district after having planned a run in a district outside Charlotte, upending a possible run by state House Speaker Tim Moore.

While Trump is backing Cawthorn, three of the state’s top lawmakers—Moore, U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and state Senate leader Phil Berger—have thrown their support to Cawthorn’s top primary competitor, state Sen. Chuck Edwards. An anti-Cawthorn political action committee is even encouraging Democrats to switch their party affiliations to vote for a non-Cawthorn primary challenger.

It’s unusual for leaders of a party to support an opponent of an incumbent from their own party, let alone one backed by a former president. But the contest underscores tension between hardline conservative newcomers and the state’s political establishment.

"We have so many in the national party of our country that believe that the key to saving our nation is weakening and cheapening our platform and going after these nonexistent middle ground voters," Cawthorn said hours before Trump was scheduled to speak. "My friends, there is no middle ground with Marxists. The key to saving our nation is not going after these voters that don't exist, but it's going after the disenfranchised man and woman in our country."

The candidates Trump is backing in 2022 will test the former president’s influence in North Carolina politics and staying power in a key battleground heading into a potential 2024 presidential run. It could also tilt the balance of a U.S. Senate that is presently evenly split.

“He’s still the de facto leader of the Republican Party,” said Chris Cooper, a Western Carolina University political scientist. “I think you certainly see that in polling, but local roots can matter.”

A Trump endorsement doesn’t guarantee success, as candidates the former president supported in 2016 and 2020 were handily defeated in contested primaries.

Spokespeople for Trump and Cawthorn didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Cawthorn’s May 17 primary race could lead to a July 26 runoff if none of the eight candidates—including ex-supporters such as local GOP official Michele Woodhouse—surpass 30%. It’s far from the only race with GOP infighting that Trump’s seeking to influence.

Triangle candidate faces scrutiny

A group of Republican voters in Johnston County are urging fellow Trump supporters to oppose political newcomer Bo Hines, who is also scheduled to speak at the rally on Saturday. He’s being opposed over his lack of ties to the community.
Hines is a 26-year-old former college football player who has the backing of Trump and Club for Growth Action, a powerful political action committee based in Washington, D.C.

Despite living nearly two hours away, in Winston-Salem, Hines is running for a congressional seat that includes all of Johnston County and parts of Wake, Harnett and Wayne counties.

Hines, whose campaign says he’ll move to Fuquay-Varina in the coming weeks, often cites his year-long stint at North Carolina State University from 2014 to 2015 as a personal connection to the community he’s seeking to represent.

“We're extremely blessed to be in a district now that we feel comfortable in, and we're settling in Fuquay and we love the area,” Hines said in an interview with WRAL last month.

Trump’s endorsement of Hines and more than $1.3 million in ads placed by Club for Growth Action this week will prove helpful, said Cooper, the Western Carolina political scientist. But he also views Hines as the most vulnerable Trump-backed North Carolina candidate this election cycle because of the limited time the candidate has spent in the district.

During the rally, Hines embraced Trump's support and spoke about gun rights, immigration and ensuring parents have a greater voice in how their children are taught in public schools.

"I will not stand for cowardly RINO Republicans that seek to dismantle the America First movement," Hines said at the rally.

Former U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers and lawyer Kelly Daughtry, the daughter of former state Rep. Leo Daughtry, are widely seen as Hines’ top opponents. Republicans DeVan Barbour, Kent Keirsey, Jessica Morel, Chad Slotta and Kevin Alan Wolff are also running.

Trump goes all-in on Budd

When Trump in June 2021 formally backed U.S. Rep. Ted Budd’s bid to fill a seat held by retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, he left many in the party surprised.

“Other candidates weren't happy that they didn't get the endorsement, but it happened so early,” said Doug Heye, a longtime GOP adviser who worked on three successful U.S. Senate campaigns in North Carolina. “No one typically pays real attention to an election until that election year and really as you get close to that primary or general election.”

Budd has climbed up the polls in recent months as more voters learn of Trump’s support and fares best in rural communities like the one Trump will be speaking at on Saturday.

Two hours before Trump was set to speak on Saturday, North Carolina's top Republican executive officeholder, Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, threw his support behind Budd, urging GOP voters to coalesce around one candidate in what has been a divisive intraparty fight.

"In this Senate race that we have today, our party needs to come together," Robinson said. "We need to join together and make sure that we could send a strong, principled conservative candidate to Washington, that we could push him through this primary and blast him past his Democratic opponent in the general election."

Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, Budd’s ideologically similar opponent, is seeking to present himself to voters as the candidate most closely aligned with Trump’s views.

Meanwhile, former Gov. Pat McCrory, another candidate, is seeking to appeal to more moderate, business-friendly Republicans and independents who may agree with Trump’s policies but disapprove of the former president’s bombastic style.

Trump has cited McCrory’s 2008 and 2016 gubernatorial defeats as a reason voters should not trust him to beat a Democrat if he were to advance to the November election. In his speech at Trump's rally Budd referred to McCrory as a "two-time loser."

"I'm the conservative fighter who will fight for all of you, and, oh yeah, I'm all in on America First because protecting and promoting American jobs is my top priority," Budd said.

The Trump-McCrory relationship worsened after Trump denied McCrory a position in his administration and the former governor used his radio show to at times forcefully criticize Trump.

“There are a lot of people that I know have lost two elections,” McCrory said in a Friday interview. “Ronald Reagan has lost several elections. In fact, most of the people who have been elected, if there's anybody who's taken any risk, they've probably lost elections because they cared more about their beliefs than just getting elected.”

Polls released this week by a nonpartisan outlet and a political group show Budd leading McCrory by double digits.

McCrory said outside spending from Club for Growth has caused the race to tighten over the past month. “The next six weeks will determine this election,” McCrory said. “I anticipate it to be a one to two point race. And it's going to be a two-person race between me and Ted Budd.”

On Saturday, Trump labeled McCrory as the “bathroom governor,” an allusion to McCrory’s support for House Bill 2.

McCrory's campaign did not immediately respond to a request for comment. U.S. Rep. Dan Bishop, whom Trump also supports, was a key backer of the 2016 legislation.

The measure McCrory signed required people to use the restroom of the gender assigned at their birth at public schools and government buildings. It prompted several companies to pull out of the state, was later repealed and was a driving force behind McCrory’s loss that year. The former governor has repeatedly declined to say whether he regrets signing the bill.

Jonathan Felts, an adviser to Budd, said in a statement that the congressman expects to beat McCrory. He then made a personal jab at McCrory, illustrating how personal and divisive the race has become.

“Even though [McCrory] didn’t get hired the first time around, we’re gracious enough that we’ll even put in a good word for him if he wants to interview again for a job with President Trump once Pat is looking for work again on May 18,” Felts said.

Trump's NC endorsement record

While a Trump endorsement may be the most coveted one for North Carolina Republicans, it hasn’t always led to success.

In 2016, Trump backed U.S. Rep. Renee Ellmers over fellow GOP incumbent George Holding. Ellmers lost by 30 percentage points. Ellmers, who is running against Hines in the 13th Congressional District, said in an interview at a Wake County GOP event last month that voters should keep in mind Trump’s track record of backing candidates who lost.

“Donald Trump has the right to endorse whoever he wants to endorse for his own reasons, but I do think you have to take that into consideration,” Ellmers said. “History is what it is. You can’t reinvent history.”

In perhaps the most noticeable rebuke, Trump-backed real estate agent Lynda Bennett handily lost her bid to fill a vacancy created when then-Rep. Mark Meadows became Trump’s chief of staff in 2020. Cawthorn, who now has Trump’s support in 2022, defeated Bennett by 32 points.

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

Trump has also backed incumbents Bishop and U.S. Rep. Greg Murphy, both of whom are expected to win in November.

Trump in 2019 was successful in his support for Bishop.

But Cooper of Western Carolina said he couldn’t recall Trump correctly picking a candidate in a highly competitive North Carolina congressional primary.

“It's a mixed success,” Cooper said. “He wins some and he loses some. He wins more than he loses, but this is not a bulletproof feature of a campaign. It is a feather in your cap if you're a Republican candidate. It's better to have it than not to have it. It's going to give you an advantage, but it doesn't guarantee victory.”