North Carolina primary field builds, with or without Lara Trump

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James Arkin
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The Republican Senate primary in North Carolina has been essentially frozen for months as Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law, publicly considered a bid in her native state.

But now some Republicans aren't waiting for her decision.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory, who won the governorship in 2012 but was ousted four years later, launched a bid Wednesday, becoming the second prominent Republican in the race, alongside former Rep. Mark Walker. And Rep. Ted Budd and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson are seriously considering running, creating a potentially bruising primary in a critical seat.

Trump’s shadow continues to loom large over the race, for now. She would easily be the frontrunner if she runs, given the popularity of the former president among the GOP base.

But she hasn’t taken any public steps towards a campaign and recently took a job at Fox News, which led some Republicans in the state to speculate that she isn’t likely to run. She said when announcing that new role on the network two weeks ago she had not made an official decision on running for Senate, which would come "hopefully sometime soon."

Now, others are jockeying for early position to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr. It’s likely to be one of the most expensive and competitive races on the Senate map next year.

McCrory, who announced his bid on his radio show in Charlotte, has high name ID among the GOP base from his term as governor and multiple statewide elections. But he’s also already taking heat from other Republicans, who criticized his 2016 defeat and say he is out of step with the current base of the party.

In an interview with POLITICO this week, he brushed off the early attacks.

“No one knows the state better than I do. No one has solved the problems that I have solved both as a mayor and a governor,” McCrory said, simultaneously touting his record in office while also framing himself as an outsider because he hasn’t worked in Washington. “Right now, I'm going to run against the radical policy of [President Joe] Biden, [Vice President Kamala] Harris and [Majority Leader Chuck] Schumer, no one else. That's who I'm running against.”

Rep. Mark Walker.
Rep. Mark Walker.

It’s likely to be a brutal fight for the nomination. Walker entered the race in December and has been highlighting endorsements locally and nationally, including several of his former House colleagues and Sens. James Lankford (R-Okla.) and Tim Scott (R-S.C.). He’s also had the quarter to fundraise, but his haul is unlikely to scare anyone off: $208,000, with just over $912,000 in the bank.

Walker took a swing at McCrory this week, while touting his own record having voted 97 percent of the time with Trump while in office.

“With taking back the Senate majority hinging on our success in North Carolina, why would we gamble on Pat McCrory — a career politician who has lost more statewide races than he’s won?” Walker said in the statement. “McCrory has routinely attacked conservatives including President Trump, and if Pat wasn’t good enough for Trump’s administration, he’s not good enough for our state.”

While it’s just Walker and McCrory for now, that could quickly change. A decision from Budd, in his third term in Congress, could be imminent.

Earlier this week, Budd's finance director sent an email invitation to a May 6 fundraising event, noting that while the event was currently for his House reelection, “by next week the event may be for Ted Budd for US Senate” and that he was “strongly leaning” towards running for Senate, according to a copy of the email obtained by POLITICO.

Michael Luethy, a political adviser to Budd, said in a statement the congressman had received “encouragement from a broad cross-section of North Carolinians” and would decide in the “coming weeks” whether to run.

If he does, he’ll likely have a powerful ally in the in the conservative Club for Growth, a group that often plays heavily in GOP primaries. David McIntosh, the Club president, told POLITICO they have encouraged Budd to run and said they would likely make a seven-figure investment boosting him.

“We think he would be the best senator — and, really, in many ways, I think, the best candidate to unify all of the different elements in this state and the Republican Party,” McIntosh said.

“Lara Trump, if she decides to [run], would, I think, rocket to the top of the list,” he added.

Rep. Ted Budd answers questions from the media at his election party in Bermuda Run, N.C.
Rep. Ted Budd answers questions from the media at his election party in Bermuda Run, N.C.

A more recent wrinkle this week is the interest of Robinson, who was elected lieutenant governor last year in his first ever run for political office, becoming the first Black lieutenant governor in the state. In a video posted online this week, Robinson confirmed he was taking a "serious look" at the Senate race. He also referenced poll numbers showing him well positioned in the primary.

"Because of that and because of the importance of this seat, we have decided to take a serous look at this race,” he said in the video.

Robinson has been making calls this week talking to Republicans about his interest in the race and appears to be leaning towards running, according to one person briefed on a conversation with him. Conrad Pogorzelski, Robinson's chief of staff and adviser, said in a text message Friday that Robinson had set an April 30 deadline to decide.

In a poll conducted by the GOP firm Cygnal, a copy of which was obtained by POLITICO, Lara Trump had 32 percent support in a hypothetical matchup, while Robinson had 20 percent and McCrory was in third with 14 percent. Trump, McCrory and Robinson all had high name identification and were viewed positively among primary voters.

North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson at his home in Colfax, N.C.
North Carolina Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson at his home in Colfax, N.C.

Walker and Budd were both in low single digits in the hypothetical primary field, likely because their name identification is low statewide. The poll was conducted April 8-9, surveying 600 likely 2022 GOP primary voters with a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percentage points.

For now, McCrory has the highest name ID among announced candidates, and his own polling released this week showed him with a hefty early edge over Budd and Walker, though the poll didn’t include Trump or Robinson. McCrory also benefits from a campaign team with experience in recent North Carolina Senate races with Burr and GOP Sen. Thom Tillis, who won last year in one of the most expensive races on the map.

Paul Shumaker is working with McCrory and was a top strategist for Tillis, and the GOP firm OnMessage, which worked with Tillis and works with GOP Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), the National Republican Senatorial Committee chair, is working with McCrory as well. Scott has said the NRSC plans to be neutral in open-seat primaries.

Other Republicans see an opening against McCrory, in particular because of comments the former governor made criticizing then-candidate Trump during the 2016 campaign following the release of the "Access Hollywood" tape. But in the interview, McCrory didn’t shy away from those comments and said he was a supporter of the president and thought he had a good relationship with him.

“I don't take back those comments, but I'll tell you this: I was very supportive of the Trump policies,” McCrory said. “And as a U.S. senator, I'll do everything I can to stop the rollback of those policies by Schumer and Biden and Harris and [House Speaker Nancy] Pelosi."

McCrory, who served seven terms as Charlotte mayor before running twice for governor, raised eyebrows in his launch video by declaring himself an "outsider." Asked by POLITICO whether voters will buy that pitch, he said he’s “only been a full-time politician for four years” and kept a “foot in the door in the private sector," working for Duke Energy while mayor. Since losing in 2016, he’s hosted a radio show in Charlotte, though that ended once he announced his bid for office.

“It's been a great balance,” he said, “which we definitely need in D.C. at this time.”