Pat McCrory is hoping for a comeback

The former governor, the only N.C. GOP Senate candidate to win statewide election, will have to beat Trump-backed Rep. Ted Budd to make it on the November ballot

RALEIGH, N.C. — As a former governor and former mayor of the state’s largest city, Pat McCrory might be the most well-known candidate running for U.S. Senate in North Carolina — but that is far from a guarantee of victory in this year’s turbulent political environment.

Even to win the Republican primary, McCrory must overcome the symbolic and financial weight of former President Donald Trump’s endorsement of Rep. Ted Budd (R-NC).

“I think most Republicans are in agreement on 90% of the issues,” McCrory said in an interview with Jewish Insider. “The disagreement comes more in personality and how to convey and get support [for] those policies. I do believe in ‘America First,’ but America is first impacted by the rest of the world,” he said, referencing the former president’s political mantra. “A lot of these issues, the economy and safety, they don’t recognize political boundaries and they’re not separated by oceans anymore.”

McCrory, 65, who served as governor from 2013-2017, had been a talk radio host in Charlotte when he entered the 2022 race to replace the retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC). 

“I got in this race because we were paying people more not to work than to work. I had a pretty good life, but the federal government had just gone too far,” McCrory told JI. “I’ll bring a mayor’s attitude to the U.S. Senate and a governor’s attitude. An attitude of action, of understanding roles of government, and an attitude of problem-solving with a conservative twist. My opponents can’t do that.”

In addition to Budd, McCrory’s opponents include former Rep. Mark Walker and combat veteran Marjorie K. Eastman. A recent poll from Emerson College found McCrory running a distant second at 22% of the vote, compared with Budd’s 38%.

“The thing about McCrory is he’s the biggest name,” Dawn Vaughan, state politics reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer, explained to JI. “Almost everyone knew him as the mayor of Charlotte and then everyone knew him as governor. So the main thing is, especially for Republican primary voters — do they still like him?”

Eastman may be the lone political outsider in the race, but Vaughan said Budd’s three terms in Congress limit his recognition to his district.

“He’s still establishment just like Walker and McCrory,” she added. “Whether you work in the U.S. Capitol or the State Capitol — you’re in government. Budd, though, can be seen as an outsider because he would be new to statewide office.”

McCrory announced he brought in $1.13 million in the first quarter of 2022, just behind Budd, who raised $1.125, but with $2.2 million on hand, compared to Budd’s $1.9 million.

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McCrory’s first experience in government, he told JI, came as a child when the 6-year-old Pat attended city council meetings in Worthington, Ohio, where his father, John, was a member. 

“No one could read my notes but I took notes,” McCrory quipped. 

Then-Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump (L) listens to North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory during a campaign rally at Wilmington International Airport November 5, 2016 in Wilmington, North Carolina. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Nearly 30 years later, McCrory was working with Duke Energy in Charlotte when he said concerns for public safety prompted him to reacquaint himself with local government. McCrory added he would soon be laid off, too, which provided him at the time with further inspiration to seek change.

“That had a major impact on my life,” he told JI. “I was eventually rehired but I wanted to do more than work in a company.”

First elected to the Charlotte City Council in 1989, McCrory would also serve as mayor pro tem before being elected as the city’s mayor in 1995 – a post he would hold until 2009.

The city grew exponentially during his tenure, and McCrory’s success in one of America’s fastest-growing cities led then-President George W. Bush to appoint McCrory to the U.S. Homeland Security Council in 2003.

It was also after 9/11, McCrory recalled, that he grew closer to Charlotte’s Jewish community.

“I went to visit the synagogues after I learned of increasing threats,” McCrory said. 

Rabbi Murray Ezring, the former senior rabbi at Temple Israel, a Conservative synagogue, told JI he extended the invitation after a rise in threats against synagogues in the area.

“I told him we needed him, and he moved around his whole schedule to do it,” Ezring added. “He didn’t hesitate, and he recognized how important this was for us.”

Jeff Epstein, the former president of Charlotte’s Jewish Community Relations Council, was in the audience during one visit and speech at Charlotte’s Temple Israel.

Heights and the folks there were explaining to me the [strategic] importance of the highlands. You have to see it to believe it.”

“Pat is a guy who really wants to serve. Pat very much had a reputation as mayor as being moderate and getting things done and not being an ideologue,” Epstein told JI. “He wanted to make things better.”

Epstein, who later served as Gov. McCrory’s secretary of the Department of Revenue, said then-Mayor McCrory also spoke highly of a trip to Israel he took with other mayors from across the U.S.

“It made a very big impression on him. I think in his gut he feels a lot of affinity for Israel because it has had so many practical successes,” Epstein explained. “And as far as Jewish community goes, I think Pat is an admirer of people who get things done, and he admires Jewish people for being so community-minded.”

Asked about his views on Israel and antisemitism today, McCrory said he “absolutely” supports more funding for Iron Dome, Israel’s missile-defense system, and for extra security at Jewish institutions in America.

“You don’t understand Israel unless you go there,” McCrory added. “I went on a bus ride to the Golan Heights and the folks there were explaining to me the [strategic] importance of the highlands. You have to see it to believe it.”

In a tweet last May, during the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas, McCrory called the rocket attacks on Israel “[r]adical terrorism against our great ally.”

“Enough is enough!” he added. “We must stand strong with Israel.”

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Despite first losing his first bid for governor in 2008, McCrory would run again in 2012 and become the first Republican chief executive in North Carolina in a decade. His election would also lead to Republicans controlling the executive branch and both chambers of the General Assembly for the first time since Reconstruction.

As governor of North Carolina, McCrory led the Tar Heel State through times of dramatic economic success and major political dramas. His tenure began with the state in a $2.3 billion deficit in its unemployment funds, $500 million Medicaid deficit, as well as the fourth-highest unemployment rate in the country.

“Most people have forgotten how tough things were in 2013,” the year he became governor, McCrory lamented. “I had to make some very unpopular decisions, including lowering unemployment benefits to match those of Virginia and Tennessee. It was the best decision I ever made because it led to the largest drop in unemployment in the U.S., and we began the Carolina Comeback.”

President Barack Obama meets with Colorado Governor John Hickenloooper (2nd R), Utah Governor Gary Herbert (R), North Carolina Governor Pat McCrory (L) and Minnesota Governor Mark Dayton (2nd L), members of the Executive Committee of the National Governors Association, in the Oval Office in Washington, D.C., January 6, 2015. (Credit: Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

By 2016, Charlotte and Raleigh, the capital city, emerged as burgeoning banking and tech hubs, respectively, with Raleigh ranked by Forbes as the #2 “Easiest City to Find a Job” and the #5 “City of the Future.” 

Still, that same year saw McCrory earn national notoriety for the passage of House Bill 2, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act. 

Derided later as “The Bathroom Bill,” HB2 prevented municipal governments from expanding protections for sexual orientation and gender identity to non-discrimination ordinances. The law also mandated individuals to use restrooms and locker rooms based on the gender on their birth certificate.

McCrory played no role in drafting HB2 nor did he call the General Assembly into special session, but his decision to sign the bill made him the target of the community’s and corporations’ ire.

“He got blindsided by all that happened,” Epstein said. “It went against his moderate image and very powerful organizations made him a target.” 

McCrory described the fallout from HB2 — which included the NBA relocating the All-Star Game from Charlotte, and the ACC and the NCAA moving their college basketball tournaments out of state — as a precursor to today’s “cancel culture.”

“We need to have a mature discussion on these complex issues. We need to have some common sense. Sadly, we didn’t have that in my time, and it was the beginning of cancel culture,” McCrory lamented.

Amid the fallout from HB2, McCrory became the first governor in the history of North Carolina to lose reelection, a nail-biter to then-Attorney General Roy Cooper.

Epstein doesn’t think HB2 is as big a deal as some opponents might think. Instead, he blames McCrory’s loss on something specific to the Charlotte area: toll roads around Charlotte.

“Suburban voters didn’t want to pay the toll, and Pat became the face of that too. Now, of course, they love avoiding the traffic and using the toll road.”

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North Carolina’s primary was originally scheduled for March 8, and polls over the winter found McCrory in the lead over his opponents. The State Supreme Court, however, pushed back the primary to May 17 after ordering the General Assembly to redraw legislative districts amid concerns of gerrymandering.

Club For Growth, a conservative political action committee supporting Budd, has pumped millions of dollars into the race and flooded the airwaves, targeting McCrory’s record as soft on immigration and painting the former governor as not being a strong supporter of Trump.

sider myself very conservative, but nowadays you have to use words like ‘fight.’ I don’t believe in name-calling conservatives. I believe in Reagan conservatives,” he explained. “I believe in self-deprecation, that you take the issues seriously but not yourself too seriously.”

“Club For Growth is the worst thing in politics,” McCrory said. “They’re trying to buy the Senate seat in North Carolina. It’s propaganda to deceive people about my record as mayor and governor, and sadly people believe it or they wouldn’t keep doing it.”

Despite McCrory’s characterization of Club For Growth, its strategy appears to be working for Budd, along with the new frontrunner’s strategy to avoid all three debates thus far.

“Not showing up for debates has its advantages and disadvantages for Budd,” Vaughan, the News & Observer political reporter, said. “The advantage for Budd is whatever McCrory or Walker throws at him on stage, Budd’s not there to have to deal with it, so he gets to control his message more. But that assumes voters like the message he’s giving — that’s what he’s banking on.”

In North Carolina, winning a primary election requires 30% plus one of the vote. If no candidate wins that total, the top two winners will head to a runoff. 

According to Vaughan, McCrory might be better off avoiding that scenario.

“The voters who went for Walker and Eastman — do they suddenly go for McCrory or Budd? That’s the risk. We’re still a few weeks out, and the great thing about elections is there are surprises.”

McCrory has appeared on every debate stage and has said he’ll continue to “show up” and tell voters he’s a reliable and ardent conservative on issues from energy to economics to foreign policy.

“I consider myself very conservative, but nowadays you have to use words like ‘fight.’ I don’t believe in name-calling conservatives. I believe in Reagan conservatives,” he explained. “I believe in self-deprecation, that you take the issues seriously but not yourself too seriously.”

As for Trump, McCrory argued his own appeal – and his future success — comes down to tone.

“I’m running on a record of success and wisdom and experience that’s desperately needed in the Senate. I’m not running dependent on endorsements.”

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