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Trump shapes North Carolina's Republican Senate primary with an early endorsement

Rep. Ted Budd speaks on June 5 at a GOP event after former President Donald Trump had just endorsed him for North Carolina's open U.S. Senate seat. The endorsement has shaped the early contours of the primary.
Melissa Sue Gerrits
Getty Images
Rep. Ted Budd speaks on June 5 at a GOP event after former President Donald Trump had just endorsed him for North Carolina's open U.S. Senate seat. The endorsement has shaped the early contours of the primary.

Updated October 21, 2021 at 7:51 AM ET

With Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr retiring at the end of his current term, swing state North Carolina has earned a spot as one of the nation's top political attractions in the 2022 midterm elections.

And on the GOP side, former President Donald Trump has already shaped the contours of the primary with an early endorsement — though it's unclear ultimately how impactful his pick will be.

A surprise endorsement

Just days after the former president's daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, announced in June she had opted against a Senate run in her native North Carolina, Trump himself was the headliner at the state Republican convention. He used the moment to surprise the crowd with a endorsement in the race, of Rep. Ted Budd.

Budd has been in the U.S. House since 2017, but he's far from a household name in the state. Trump alluded to that in his off-the-cuff remarks to the state GOP gathering, saying, "And a lot of you don't know him that well, but you're going to know him probably within about two minutes."

He invited the congressman — who himself had only learned of the endorsement moments earlier — to join him on stage. Budd's remarks were brief — a "Thank you, Mr. President," a nod to Lara Trump in the audience, "You'd be a heck of a senator," and finally, a call to action echoing Trump's own campaign slogan, "So let's win this together and let's get back to making America great again."

Still, Budd faces tough competition for the Republican nomination. His most prominent opponent is someone who's very well known in North Carolina: Pat McCrory, who was a popular mayor of Charlotte for 14 years, and who served a single term as governor before losing narrowly in 2016. (He also ran for governor unsuccessfully years earlier, in 2008. Trump referenced those McCrory losses in endorsing Budd. "You can't pick people that have already lost two races," Trump said.)

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is seen in a 2020 photo.
Gerry Broome / AP
Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory is seen in a 2020 photo.

McCrory has close ties to the business community and also endeared himself to social conservatives as governor when he signed HB2 — the so-called "bathroom bill" — which required people to use the bathroom that corresponds to the sex designated on their birth certificate. That measure, which led to public and corporate protests and cost the state economically, was repealed after McCrory left office.

Despite his long resume, McCrory is portraying himself as the outsider in this contest.

"I built my career outside of Washington, as a mayor and governor," McCrory says in a campaign video. "I took on the tough fights and the liberals attacked me for it."

Trump endorsement doesn't deter challengers

The Trump endorsement has hardly had the effect of clearing, or even winnowing, the field of GOP hopefuls. The final number is not yet set, but as recently as this month a political newcomer and military veteran named Marjorie Eastman entered the fray, though analysts say she's a long shot at best.

One of the more prominent hopefuls is Mark Walker, a former congressman and Baptist minister. He's been taking an unusual step for a white Republican candidate in a primary: reaching out specifically to North Carolina's African American community. His pitch to socially conservative Black voters who might typically back a Democrat includes campaign materials showing him outside the old Woolworth store in Greensboro — the scene of landmark 1960 civil rights sit-ins to confront segregation.

"We're trying to show that you do not have to be one-dimensional," he said in an interview. "You can be a strong conservative, but you also can find a way to share your heart in a manner that attracts people to what we believe, as opposed to repels them."

He says it's something Republicans need to do more of.

Then-Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C. speaks during a 2019 hearing on Capitol Hill.
Manuel Balce Ceneta / AP
Then-Rep. Mark Walker, R-N.C. speaks during a 2019 hearing on Capitol Hill.

Who turns out, and how the Trump factor plays out

So far, campaigning hasn't really heated up for the primary that is scheduled for March 8 of next year.

The only prominent TV spots on the air so far are from an outside group — the conservative Club for Growth — which is backing Budd and attacking McCrory for not being in line with Trump on trade with China and other issues.

Right now the main task for all of the candidates is raising cash, and Budd and McCrory have a big advantage there. In the third quarter of 2021, each reported raising just over $1 million.

Looking ahead, political scientist Susan Roberts at Davidson College says the big question she has is who actually votes in the North Carolina GOP primary.

"A person that votes in the primary is different from a general election voter," she said.

Roberts noted that primary voters tend to be older, wealthier and better educated than the average voter. Those, she said, are not the demographics of the typical Trump voter. So that could dampen the boost Budd gets from Trump's endorsement, especially with a March 8 primary — hardly a date that people are conditioned to think of as a time to go vote.

Roberts is blunt: "You know, it's not the Super Bowl of elections." And that, she said, means it'll be steep climb getting people to the polls. "So you have the combination of the primary voter profile, plus an off-year election. Those factors could make for an interesting mix."

Dallas Woodhouse, a veteran North Carolina GOP strategist and political analyst for the Carolina Journal, says not to believe anybody who tells you they know how the Trump endorsement of Budd will play out.

"This is a situation where he [Trump] would be elevating a candidate who's not very well known [Budd] and trying to overtake one that is extremely well-known [McCrory]. And I don't know how that'll work," he said. And he suggests that Budd not lean solely on Trump's support. "I don't think that Mr. Budd can win on a Trump endorsement alone. I mean, he has to create his own identity."

But while a Trump endorsement may not be enough to pick a winner in the North Carolina Senate primary, Woodhouse also recognizes that the campaign itself could turn into a battle between Trump forces and more traditional Republicans.

"Does this turn into a proxy fight between, sort of establishment Republicans versus Trump's ascendancy?" he wondered.

Pressed on the odds of that and how much clout Trump really has with Republicans in the state, Woodhouse smiled and shrugged.

"These are unanswered questions," he said. "And the fact is, I've thought about this a lot. And if anybody would know, I think I would know, and I don't."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Don Gonyea
You're most likely to find NPR's Don Gonyea on the road, in some battleground state looking for voters to sit with him at the local lunch spot, the VFW or union hall, at a campaign rally, or at their kitchen tables to tell him what's on their minds. Through countless such conversations over the course of the year, he gets a ground-level view of American elections. Gonyea is NPR's National Political Correspondent, a position he has held since 2010. His reports can be heard on all NPR News programs and at NPR.org. To hear his sound-rich stories is akin to riding in the passenger seat of his rental car, traveling through Iowa or South Carolina or Michigan or wherever, right along with him.