A budding Senate campaign in North Carolina

A spur-of-the-moment endorsement from former President Donald Trump bolstered three-term Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC) and changed the dynamics of one of the hottest races of the midterms

Former President Donald Trump threw North Carolina’s contentious Republican Senate primary into disarray when, during last month’s state GOP convention in Greenville, he surprised the audience by announcing his “complete and total endorsement” of Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC), one of three leading candidates running to succeed outgoing Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) in the 2022 midterms.

“It took an unpredictable race and made it positively chaotic,” said Chris Cooper, a professor of political science at Western Carolina University.

Trump informed Budd of the spur-of-the-moment endorsement just 15 minutes before taking the stage, and shortly after his daughter-in-law, Lara, made clear that she would not seek the nomination following months of speculation. The former president had not been expected to throw his support behind any one candidate so early in the race, which is scheduled for March of next year pending a redrawn congressional map.

By giving his thumbs-up to Budd — until recently a little-known, three-term congressman from North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region — the former president sowed some intra-party confusion in an open-seat contest that is highly consequential for both Democrats and Republicans. With a number of GOP senators across the country now poised to retire, Democrats are strategizing to expand their razor-thin majority in the upper chamber — and the swing state of North Carolina is a prime target. 

A weak GOP candidate — as well as any lingering tension within the Republican Party — would make the general election even more competitive for Democrats, many of whom have already entered the race. 

Former U.S. President Donald Trump listens to Ted Budd announce he’s running for the NC Senate at the NCGOP state convention on June 5, 2021 in Greenville, North Carolina. (Credit: Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images)

Trump’s involvement in the North Carolina Senate primary, while somewhat destabilizing, represents an early test case of his influence within the Republican Party as he mulls a 2024 presidential bid while embarking on a summer tour of campaign-style rallies beginning in Ohio last weekend. Whether he has picked a winning candidate in Budd remains to be seen with nine months to go until the primary, but so far his imprimatur appears to have carried some weight.

“I had a plan to win the primary even without Trump’s very clear endorsement,” Budd, 49, said in a recent interview with Jewish Insider. “But I would say that’s a major accelerator.”

A recent poll conducted by Budd’s campaign days after the endorsement suggested that the congressman was trailing by double digits behind Pat McCrory, the former North Carolina governor who announced his Senate bid in April and is widely regarded as a frontrunner with significant statewide recognition. But when voters were informed of Trump’s nod, Budd surged to the front of the pack.

While updated quarterly filings from the Federal Election Commission, to be released in mid-July, will provide a clearer picture of Budd’s momentum, Budd senior advisor Jonathan Felts told JI that low-dollar donations nearly tripled following the endorsement, “and a lot of folks who were sending us to voicemail are now calling us and requesting meetings.”

Felts predicts that McCrory will win the quarter, but the “significant uptick in activity” bodes well for Budd, at least at this early stage. “We just met with one of Pat’s strongest supporters on Monday,” Felts said. “He had already maxed out to Pat but after our discussion, he walked over to his desk, got online and maxed out to Ted.”

He declined to name names until the July 15 filing deadline. “I think we are going to have a few surprises for Team Pat,” Felts said.

Prior to the endorsement, party activists in the Tar Heel State appeared to be coalescing around another candidate, former Rep. Mark Walker (R-NC), who won a GOP delegate straw poll at the recent convention where Budd was anointed by Trump. Walker, who entered the race in December, had also picked up an endorsement from Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-NC). The influential freshman congressman is almost always closely aligned with Trump, even though the former president backed Cawthorn’s opponent in the heated 2020 Republican primary runoff. Cawthorn nevertheless triumphed by a 30-point margin.

Trump’s previous lack of success in North Carolina has added to speculation over whether his gamble will pay off in the Senate race, but his decision to support Budd has also provoked discord among the candidates. Last month, in a sharply worded Twitter statement, McCrory expressed disappointment that Trump had “endorsed a Washington insider who has done more to oppose the Trump agenda than anyone in this race.” Walker, for his part, has been somewhat less direct, accusing Trump’s former chief of staff, Mark Meadows, of leading the former president astray.

“I’m in a serving role right now, and I want to continue that,” Budd added. “I want to continue to serve but for the whole state.”

Meanwhile, Budd, who casts himself as a faithful Trump acolyte in his otherwise zany campaign kickoff video — released in late April and featuring a monster truck called the “Liberal Agenda Crusher” — seems relatively care-free. In a Wednesday tweet, he posted a photo of himself torching a zebra cobra, which had recently been on the loose in Raleigh, with a flamethrower. “Heads up, Raleigh Republicans!” he wrote, including a link to his fundraising page. “Did you know Ted Budd crushes the Liberal Agenda AND destroys VENOMOUS COBRAS?”

“The big question is how much is he going to use the Trump endorsement, particularly when we get into the fall in the meat of the campaign,” Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in North Carolina, said of Budd. “Then, how will folks like Walker and McCrory in particular try to rebut that endorsement and focus on some other aspect to appeal to the primary electorate.”

Budd —  who has also been endorsed by the conservative Club for Growth — remains optimistic that Trump’s support will extend beyond the initial endorsement as the race begins to pick up. The former president has not yet indicated if he will swing through North Carolina on his summer tour, but Budd is crossing his fingers. “I sure hope so,” he said. “But I don’t know yet.”

“We’re going to make every effort to keep up the momentum and do the hard work,” he told JI.

The Senate hopeful, a gun store owner who represents North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District, said he entered the race because of what he regards as an encroaching liberalism that poses a threat to his traditional values. “It’s not your parents’ Democrat Party,” he said. “This is a party of progressivism and cancel culture, and I think it’s very destructive to all people regardless of what party. That’s what I’m against.”

“I want to stop socialism and the things that are destroying our country, continue American prosperity, which is part of the American way of life,” he said. “I grew up in a family of small business owners, and we lived on a family farm. I still live on that same family farm, and so the business that we had is a service business.”

“I’m in a serving role right now, and I want to continue that,” Budd added. “I want to continue to serve but for the whole state.”

Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC)

Budd voted to overturn the presidential election results in January but sought to differentiate himself from his primary opponents on different grounds in the interview with JI. “I’m a small business person, and I know what it’s like to face the regulations from the side of a small business,” he claimed. “I know what it’s like to pay quarterly taxes. I know what it’s like to sign the front of a check and not the back of a check when it comes to business. So I have that entrepreneurial background, which I don’t think any of the other major candidates have.”

“We studied it as a written language, so I could sing the ‘aleph, bet’ to you if you’d like,” he said, referring to the Hebrew alphabet. “That was amazing. I would say one of the greatest things of studying the biblical languages, Koine Greek and then Hebrew, was that it forced you to think.

Lest anyone doubt his formidability, Budd claimed that he is “battle-tested,” having emerged victorious from a 17-way Republican primary in 2016 during his first bid for public office. “I know what it’s like to fight in a tough primary,” he said. “I don’t choke on easy races, and I don’t walk away.”

In North Carolina’s presidential primary that same year, Budd voted for Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) before migrating to the Trump camp.

Before entering politics, Budd was a seminarian who did five semesters of Greek and four semesters of Hebrew at Dallas Theological Seminary. “We studied it as a written language, so I could sing the ‘aleph, bet’ to you if you’d like,” he said, referring to the Hebrew alphabet. “That was amazing. I would say one of the greatest things of studying the biblical languages, Koine Greek and then Hebrew, was that it forced you to think. I would just say, it was a very difficult experience, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

The congressman, who is dyslexic — “not severe, but something that’s been a challenge, and I think it affects, in a positive way, the way you think” — joked that the experience of reading Hebrew right to left was likely somewhat easier for him than other seminarians who did not struggle with the disorder. “When I talk with those that studied Hebrew or are Jewish and have an appreciation for the language,” he said, “they like that the dyslexic finally found the language that reads from right to left.”

Budd, an evangelical Christian, has visited Israel twice, in 1998 and 2013, both biblical tours of the Jewish state. “As they say, from Dan to Beersheba,” he told JI, alluding to the biblical phrase. “From top to bottom.”

He has not been to Israel as a congressman but expressed a desire to go back soon. “I know there’s so much innovation,” he said. “You have your own Silicon Valley, if you will, in Tel Aviv, and being somebody that sees a lot of agricultural innovation and water efficiency technology come out of there, I’d love to see some of the labs. I’d love to see some of the software innovation in the technological corridor in Tel Aviv.”

“Your typical biblical tourist doesn’t want to see that stuff,” he said. “But I’d also like to see that as well.”

Budd commended Trump’s foreign policy achievements in the Middle East, including the Abraham Accords agreements between Israel and a number of Arab nations that his administration helped broker. 

Now, Budd believes that President Joe Biden is undoing that progress. “It just seems with the promotion of the Palestinians, it has, you know, as being hostile to Israel, we’ve just seen a lot of unforced errors in the last six months and so much chaos as a result of that,” he told JI. “We were having increasing peace in the Middle East under Trump and a devolving of peace under Biden.”

Still, the congressman boasted of his strong relationship with AIPAC, which is invested in maintaining bipartisan support for Israel. “The people that come with AIPAC, they may be Democrats, they may be Republicans, but their central concern is Israel,” he said, “and so we all are allies in that regard.”

Growing up in Winston-Salem, Budd attended a Presbyterian Church right next to a synagogue, and recalled mingling with the rabbis on Sundays when he would sneak off to the local Krispy Kreme. “We would all be at the counter together,” he recalled. “That was a great experience.”

Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., walks down the House steps following a vote in the Capitol on Wednesday, June 28, 2017.(Credit: Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

Budd’s current district includes at least one synagogue, though he does not appear to have engaged with the congregation. “No contact that I know of,” Rabbi Andrew Vogel Ettin, the spiritual leader of Temple Israel, a nondenominational synagogue in Salisbury, which sits in Budd’s district, told JI in an email. “I’m not well acquainted with Budd.”

If elected to the Senate, Budd said he would stand strongly against antisemitism as incidents of anti-Jewish violence have increased in recent months.

“The things that I’ve done in the House I will continue to do in the Senate, so there’s a consistency there,” he said. Budd mentioned a resolution he introduced last year alongside two Republican congressman encouraging public schools nationwide to teach a curriculum about the history of antisemitism and the Holocaust. “It highlights the BDS movement,” Budd told JI, referring to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel, which, he argued, has “subjected Jewish students on college campuses to a lot of antisemitism.”

When it comes to addressing antisemitism within his party’s ranks, however, Budd sounded somewhat more reserved. Asked to comment on Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-AZ) alleged participation in an upcoming fundraiser with Nick Fuentes, a known white supremacist and Holocaust denier alongside whom Gosar spoke at an event in February, Budd pled ignorance.

“That would certainly be unfortunate if what you say is true,” he said, “but I don’t have any knowledge of that.”

Both congressmen sit on the House Freedom Caucus for conservative Republicans, but Budd said he did not have a close relationship with Gosar. “It’s a large and growing group with a diverse set of characters,” he said. “I would say there’s a robust discussion, and I would say the nature of the group tends to be very, very pro-Israel.”

Ada Fisher, a former state representative to the Republican National Committee who lives in Budd’s district and is Black and Jewish, said she respects the congressman’s approach to politics. “There are not a lot of things that we have disagreed with,” she told JI. “He tries to not get too far on the fringes from what I’ve seen.”

“He’s a decent fella,” Fisher added. “If I’ve got questions I can call him and send him a text and he’ll answer.”

Notwithstanding her strong support for Trump, however, Fisher said the former president’s recent endorsement in favor of Budd would play no role in influencing her vote next cycle. “It didn’t make me feel anything,” she said in a phone interview. “I don’t vote according to who President Trump says vote for. I vote according to where people stand on the issues and what I know about them individually and what I think they will do for the state of North Carolina.”

Budd outlined his broad vision for the state in conversation with JI. “You have to make sure you take care of North Carolina,” he said. “It’s a growing state. We have banking, agriculture, transportation, pharmaceuticals. So we have to make sure that our country remains a great place to do business. We want to reward those who are job creators and risk takers, and I would say, first of all, maintain that, maintaining our American strength, but also making sure it’s a country worth defending.”

He emphasized that he is taking nothing for granted as he seeks to make inroads among voters who don’t know him. “I have to go west to the mountains and east towards the coast to let other folks that haven’t met me yet know what I stand for and what they can expect from me,” he said.

“You can’t coast on a Trump endorsement,” Budd said. “A Trump endorsement is a permission to work hard and earn people’s votes across the state.”

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