NC GOP Senate primary intensifies as campaigns go negative

·4 min read

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — A court ruling delaying North Carolina’s high-stakes GOP Senate primary has increased pressure on former President Donald Trump’s favored candidate to agree to a debate schedule and has given his opponents more space to renew attacks on him.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, whom Trump has endorsed in the race, believes it would be “foolish” to agree to a debate schedule given fresh uncertainty created when the state Supreme Court pushed back the primary from March 8 to May 17 and suspended candidate filing, his campaign said. But his opponents, former North Carolina Republican Gov. Pat McCrory and ex-Rep. Mark Walker, are renewing calls for Budd to get a debate on the books.

The disagreement over the debates is one facet of intraparty drama that will now have 10 more weeks to play out. Democrats are hoping a divisive GOP primary for the seat U.S. Sen. Richard Burr is vacating will boost their party’s prospects in the general election.

McCrory is upset that the court ruling extended the election season and said he would have entered the race later had he been planning for a May primary from the beginning. Earlier this week, North Carolina's highest court pushed back primaries for all races to give state courts time to review lawsuits claiming the Republican-controlled legislature illegally gerrymandered some districts.

The former governor, who considers himself the frontrunner, is furious over the attacks by Washington-based Club for Growth Action, a political action committee that's circulating a 12-page mailer and airing television ads attacking McCrory in order to help Budd.

“They’re funding his entire political experience,” McCrory said in an interview. “It’s the D.C. swamp at its worst, and, of course, they’ve gone completely negative with deceitful ads about me in the mail and on TV. ... I’m not interested in being part of any club. I want to be a change agent in D.C. and bring North Carolina solutions. My vote is not for sale.”

The group that has vowed to spend at least $10 million boosting Budd said the mailer cost $15,000 and went out to conservative and political “thought leaders.”

In the meantime, Trump wants Walker to bow out of the GOP primary so Budd can capture more of the Trump base. But Walker said he plans to stay in the race through at least the end of the year, extending for now the dual calls for Budd to get on stage with them.

“If he would show up for one of these forums, we’d have a chance to talk to him," Walker said of Budd.

Budd declined an interview, but his adviser Jonathan Felts said the lengthened primary season won't hurt their campaign.

“Gov. McCrory's career as a career politician just got extended by two months. That's about the only impact for us that I can see,” Felts said in a text message.

Doug Heye, a longtime GOP advisor who is not working for any of the three top Republican Senate campaigns, said the extended period for GOP candidates to fight among themselves "clearly doesn't help.”

“These things usually do not help and it's very rare that they do," said Heye, a former communications director for the Republican National Committee and Burr’s successful 2004 campaign. "If you're a party official, you never want to see your own side fighting. You want to see the other side in disarray."

Michael Bitzer, a Catwaba College politics professor who analyzes voting trends, said the extra two months in the primary cycle will not have a substantial effect on the number of primary voters who turn out, but could negatively affect candidates who are poor campaigners.

He believes Republican primary voters fall into two camps: Trump loyalists and conservatives who don't align themselves with the former president. Bitzer thinks staunch Trump supporters presently represent a greater share of the primary electorate. Regardless of who wins, though, he believes, voters are likely to rally around the eventual nominee expected to face either former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley or state Sen. Jeff Jackson, the two leading Democrats.

“What Democrats would love to see is a midterm election on Donald Trump, and if his candidate (Budd) is the nominee, that’s gonna make that connection so much more apparent," Bitzer said.


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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.