2022 midterms

Trump’s North Carolina Senate Candidate Is Surging Into the Lead

North Carolina is another Senate battleground where Trump is engaged. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

As we head into the midterm primary election season, Donald Trump, who has staked a lot of prestige on his many endorsements in Republican contests, is cruising for a bruising in Georgia and risking setbacks in several other states. But an emerging bright spot for the ex-president is the U.S. Senate primary in North Carolina, where his endorsed candidate, Representative Ted Budd, has surged into a strong lead in a new Emerson poll for The Hill.

Until quite recently, Trump’s Budd endorsement was looking like a potential mistake. Better-known former governor Pat McCrory was leading in both polling and fundraising, while Christian right warhorse Mark Walker seemed to be nipping at Budd’s heels. A Politico story in early March described Budd as “struggling”:

A February poll by Remington Research Group conducted for Walker’s campaign and obtained by POLITICO shows Budd falling 5 points since a January survey by the firm. Remington’s most recent poll put McCrory at 35 percent, Budd at 24 percent, Walker at 17 percent and Marjorie Eastman — a late entrant into the race who has had moderate success with fundraising — at 3 percent. Undecideds make up 21 percent of voters, the poll found.

A separate poll, commissioned by the pro-Walker super PAC Awake Carolina, found Budd slipping even further. The survey, conducted by Ingress Research Group Feb. 27 and also obtained by POLITICO, found McCrory at 29 percent, Budd at 18 percent, Walker at 11 percent, Eastman at 4 percent and 35 percent still undecided. The firm polled 864 likely Republican primary voters using phone interviews and online questions, with a margin of error of 3.3 percent.

In the new, non-candidate-sponsored Emerson poll, however, Budd is at 38 percent, McCrory at 22 percent, and Walker is far back at 9 percent. The poll showed that “59 percent of Republican primary voters say Trump’s endorsement makes them more likely to vote for a candidate.” But Budd’s most important backer may be the Club for Growth, which has pledged to spend up to $14 million on ads praising their candidate, and more importantly, bashing McCrory as a liberal, a loser, and a traitor to the Boss:

Aside from the McCrory loss to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016, the case that he is a bad general-election candidate is reinforced by the Emerson poll, which shows the former governor trailing likely Democratic nominee (and former chief justice of the State Supreme Court) Cheri Beasley, with 41 percent to her 43 percent support, while Budd leads her by seven points and Walker leads her by five. Beasley’s most formidable primary opponent, State Senator Jeff Jackson, dropped out of the race in December and endorsed her. She’s steadily raising money. Beasley would be the first Black U.S. senator from North Carolina, a sometimes-overlooked battleground state (Trump carried it by just over one percent of the vote in 2020, while Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham lost by a slightly greater margin).

One other finding from the Emerson poll worth noting: Budd is running well ahead of the 30 percent threshold North Carolina has set for avoiding an expensive and contentious runoff.

During much of this cycle, the Senate race has been overshadowed by political and legal wrangling over the Republican-controlled North Carolina legislature’s efforts to gerrymander U.S. House districts for the next decade, which so far have been thwarted by state and federal courts. But the Senate seat is one of nine that Cook Political Report currently rates as competitive (either tossups or leaning Democratic or — as in North Carolina — leaning Republican). And it’s a particularly big deal for Trump, whose midterm strategy is to show his clout in both primary and general-election races. For the moment, he may have 99 problems in the midterms, but Budd ain’t one.

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Trump’s Senate Candidate in North Carolina Surges Into Lead