April 5 (Reuters) – When Donald Trump holds his next rally in North Carolina on Saturday, he will try to bolster his hand-picked favorite for the U.S. Senate, Rep. Ted Budd, in a tight and increasingly intense competition to the Republican nomination.
Budd is locked in a stalemate with former state governor Pat McCrory ahead of the May 17 primary, with former congressman Mark Walker in third place. The crowded field could force a runoff in July, risking Republicans’ chances of retaining the seat currently held by incumbent Senator Richard Burr.
Two weeks after Trump withdrew his endorsement of Senate hopeful Mo Brooks’ tough campaign in Alabama, the race illustrates the dangers facing the party’s bid to regain a majority in the Senate as it prepares to fight Democrats for seats in seven competitive states, including North Carolina.
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Trump surprised many Republicans last June when he endorsed Budd, 50, a rank-and-file member of the House of Representatives with little statewide name recognition.
Despite endorsements and more than $8 million in ad support so far from the conservative Trump-aligned group Club for Growth, Budd carried just 32% of Republican voters in a recent poll, barely crossing the threshold of 30% to avoid a runoff and well below the 50% mark that a separate poll predicted for a Trump-endorsed candidate. Other polls showed Budd in the middle 20% range in a race with 14 declared Republican candidates.
“It’s going to tell me, and the people of North Carolina, that maybe he’s not the right candidate,” said Walker, who defied Trump’s efforts to persuade him to quit.
“I believe President Trump hitched his wagon to the wrong horse prematurely in this race,” he told Reuters in an interview.
Trump spokesman Taylor Budowich said, “The rally supports Ted Budd and all President Trump-endorsed candidates who will be propelled to victory because of the power of his endorsement and the support of the MAGA movement.”
THE DEMOCRATS HAVE DECIDED
Democrats have already consolidated behind their own presumptive nominee, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley. But political strategists from both parties say Trump’s next rally could put Budd above it, when paired with an expected $10 million publicity barrage by the Budd campaign and outside supporters including the Club for Growth. .
“It’s not a flashy campaign,” Budd adviser Jonathan Felts said. “It’s slow and steady. But we’re steadily winning in the metrics that matter – the base, polling trends and fundraising. We’ve gone from being declared ‘ineligible’ and down 40 points to in full middle of things… we’re going to be where we need to be.”
Budd began airing his first TV commercial on March 23, a 30-second spot focusing on illegal immigration that promotes his endorsement of Trump and shows him crossing the US-Mexico border with a gun in his belt. His campaign plans to spend $2.5 million on ads ahead of the primary.
But not all candidates endorsed by Trump win. Another Trump-endorsed Republican Senate candidate, Kelly Tshibaka, has largely trailed Senator Lisa Murkowski in the polls and fundraising in the Alaska Republican primary race, though a mid-March survey showed that she was leading Murkowski 51-49%.
McCrory, 65, took an early lead in North Carolina after serving as governor, although he lost his 2016 re-election bid to Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper. Political analysts also say McCrory faces skepticism from some primary voters who view him as not conservative enough, a claim his campaign denies.
But the former governor has remained at the top, despite repeated attacks from the Club for Growth seeking to portray him as a closet liberal.
“The fact that McCrory is still ahead of the pack speaks to how hard it is to beat him in this race. He is well known to Republican primary voters, most of whom have voted for him many times before,” his campaign adviser said. Jordan Shaw.
A poll released March 28 by the conservative North Carolina Values Coalition shows a statistical stalemate, with Budd at 32% support, McCrory at 29% and Walker at 12% with a 4.4% margin of error. Twenty-five percent were undecided.
Budd is leading the fundraising campaign with $2.2 million in cash as of Dec. 31, the latest date for which Federal Election Commission data is available. McCrory had just under $2 million, with Walker just over $570,000. All three campaigns declined to provide updated figures.
Democrat Beasley had the biggest pile of cash: $2.8 million.
If Budd were to win the Republican nomination, some Republicans say Trump’s endorsement could become a liability for him in a general election in a state Trump has carried by just 1.3 percentage points in 2020.
Senator Thom Tillis won re-election in 2020 by 1.8% over Democrat Cal Cunningham, who had led the incumbent Republican until his candidacy was overtaken by news of an extramarital affair.
“No one understands exactly what a November 2022 Trump endorsement will look like,” said Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western Carolina University.
Join now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com
Reporting by David Morgan in Washington, additional reporting by Alexandra Ulmer and Alyssa Pointer; Editing by Scott Malone and Alistair Bell
Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.