Despite leaving office in defeat and under the cloud of a second impeachment, former President Donald Trump retains a level of popularity unparalleled by anyone else in the Republican Party, with the support of around 80 percent of Republican voters in certain swing states. As such, his endorsement is coveted by Republican candidates, especially those who may be lagging in polls or party support. Today’s primaries in five states offered a window into the continued success of his recommendations.
Trump’s endorsements don’t always fit the pattern of a traditional party leader, who may choose to support the “most electable” or “most conservative” candidate. Instead, the former president occasionally throws his weight behind the candidate who is most famous, or more loyal to him, even if it alienates some of his base. This gives some cause for concern, seeing as many Trump-endorsed candidates have been able to ride his endorsement into office.
The race that may best signify this trend is the North Carolina Senate primary, where Rep. Ted Budd won tonight by significantly more than the 30 percent needed to win outright and avoid a runoff. In the fall, he will face Democrat Cheri Beasley in a bid to replace Republican Sen. Richard Burr, who is retiring.
North Carolina leans Republican but is still considered a swing state. For much of the race, the clear front-runner was Pat McCrory, who served as governor of the state in 2013–17. On paper, McCrory would seem to be a prototypical Trumpian Republican: As governor, he banned sanctuary cities, extended the waiting period for an abortion from one day to three, and required people to use the public bathroom that corresponded to their biological sex. That last act, which became known as the “bathroom bill,” was credited with narrowly costing McCrory reelection in 2016, despite Republican successes across the country. As far as fighting in the Trump-era culture wars goes, McCrory is an experienced candidate.
But last June, Trump suddenly gave his “complete and total endorsement” to Budd. As a congressman, Budd supported the failed lawsuit in which Texas tried to challenge the results of the 2020 election; on January 6, 2021, Budd also voted against certifying Pennsylvania’s electoral votes. Days after the election, Budd texted Mark Meadows, then the White House chief of staff, speculating about conspiracy theories that Dominion Voting Systems was connected to billionaire financier George Soros.
After entering the race, pro-Budd ads started denigrating McCrory as a “liberal faker” and a “RINO,” meaning “Republican In Name Only.” On the strength of a late-campaign surge, Budd went into the primary with a commanding lead over McCrory.
To be sure, this is not to say that McCrory’s record makes him a good candidate: The bathroom bill was a gross overreach of executive power, forbidding cities and counties from making their own determinations on anti-discrimination ordinances. The same is true of a top-down prohibition on sanctuary cities. (For reference, Budd also supports using the power of the government to punish sanctuary cities.)
But it is concerning when a candidate like McCrory, who made his name on culture war battles, is somehow not MAGA enough. It serves as a bad sign for the types of candidates who are being cultivated when the way to win over Republican voters even in swing states is to compete for who can be the most extreme.