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How big a role will Trump play in Senate primary?

Posted on September 13, 2021

OpinionColumns

Alexander H. Jones

Alexander H. Jones

Whatever else he plans to do between now and the 2024 presidential election, Donald Trump is unlikely to go away.

Politico reports that Trump is building a campaign infrastructure and that most of his advisers believe another campaign for the White House is inevitable. Naturally, observers in our swing state will be curious about how the disgraced former president plans to interact with North Carolina politics in the interval between this early date and what will be a tough fight to keep the Tar Heel State in the red column. It starts, of course, with the U.S. Senate.

Trump chose North Carolina — specifically, the friendly environs of eastern N.C. — as the site of his first public address since the Jan. 6 insurrection, during the state GOP convention. The speech did not disappoint: he announced a surprise endorsement of U.S. Rep. Ted Budd for U.S. Senate.

The endorsement left state politicos reeling, as all three major candidates in the race had catered to Trump, and his early backing seemed to rocket Budd into first place. After all, Trump commands intense loyalty from nearly all Republican primary voters.

Then, one surprise compounded with another. The second-quarter fundraising reports from the major Senate candidates revealed that Trump’s endorsement had not led to the expected avalanche of small-dollar donations to Budd. Budd raised $700,000 to Pat McCrory’s $1.2 million.

Possibly, Budd’s underperformance reflected the premature timing of Trump’s endorsement. Not enough Republican voters are paying attention to a race that would, after all, take place a full year from the endorsement. Still, McCrory’s lead in the money chase showed signs of life for his campaign, which many observers had pronounced dead in the water.

There’s a wrinkle, however. For all of Budd’s mediocrity on the fundraising front, he has a huge cash infusion waiting for him. The Club For Growth, a major corporate. far-right. dark money group based in D.C., has committed to spending $5 million on Budd’s behalf before the primary is out — and it’s already opened its wallet.

Club advertisements linking Pat McCrory to Chinese interests are already playing in select media markets across the state. If the Club maintains its staunch pro-Trump positioning, the Trump endorsement could echo throughout the primary season. And a Budd internal poll already showed that when voters learn of Trump’s support for the candidate, Budd takes the lead.

In the final analysis, a heavy Trump influence seems like a good bet if the former president wants to be a factor. No politician in American history has been better at attracting a crowd than Donald Trump. And the ardor for the autocrat is as strong as ever.

The default operating principle of every Republican campaign is to attach the candidate to Trump like Gorilla Glue. That said, Pat McCrory could prove the strongest Trumpers wrong.

It’s going to be a tight race — and perhaps a damaging one, for a party that must compete in our incredibly polarized state.

Alexander H. Jones is a policy analyst with Carolina Forward. He lives in Chapel Hill.

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