Pundits and politicos like to talk about “mainstream” or “Main Street” Republicans, as if they made up a significant percentage of today’s GOP. But make no mistake. The May 17 primary election proved beyond doubt that the Trump cult — and there’s no denying they are a cult — is firmly in control of the Republican Party in North Carolina.
Trump-endorsed candidates were victorious in each race except one, that being Madison Cawthorn’s defeat in the 11th Congressional District. He narrowly lost to popular state Sen. Chuck Edwards, who was endorsed by legislative leadership and Sen. Thom Tillis.
While these leaders may pat themselves on the back for influencing the outcome, Cawthorn’s defeat was largely because he was a flawed candidate who embarrassed even those who previously supported him. That the margin was as close as it was is because the former president doubled down, asking voters to give him another chance. But folks in the 11th know a bad apple when they see it.
The headline race of the night, the U.S. Senate primary, proved uneventful. Rep. Ted Budd bolted to a lead in the 14-candidate GOP field and never looked back. Credit Trump, but the real reason for such a victory was the estimated $9 million of support from the independent expenditure group Club for Growth. Any hope North Carolinians might have had for an independent senator was dashed. Former Gov. Pat McCrory came in a distant second because he was labeled too moderate, even liberal.
If Budd prevails in November, and we can only surmise how much Club for Growth will contribute, never forget he is bought and paid for by this Washington group and Trump. He was not a particularly graceful winner, immediately going on the attack against Cheri Beasley, his Democratic opponent in November, calling her the most liberal person ever to run for the Senate in our state.
He obviously doesn’t know his history. He should study the 1950 primary between Frank Porter Graham and Willis Smith, or perhaps the Jesse Helms-Harvey Gannt general election in 1976.
In the 13th Congressional District primary, Bo Hines bested seven other Republicans despite an advertising barrage by Kelly Daughtry, who was on TV more often than pharmaceutical ads. She reportedly spent $3 million of her own money to achieve a distant third-place finish. This, and other campaigns, were uncommonly ugly for a primary.
Republican races dominated the coverage of the election, but Democrats could also take heart. In the Democratic primary for the 13th, state Sen. Wiley Nickel bested four others to win. Many consider the redistricted 13th as potentially competitive, so a November showdown could be interesting.
Unsurprisingly, former Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley easily beat 10 other candidates to coast to victory, setting up what promises to be the premiere contest in November.
We can take encouragement that almost 20% of our 7.2 million registered voters cast ballots, a recent high.
Here are our takeaways: Trump was on the ballot. His imprimatur was highly evident and references to him influenced outcomes, even where he didn’t endorse a candidate.
His legacy has been to encourage and fan the flames of what is known as “The Age of Rage.” We’ve become an angry, hate-filled, fed-up and doubtful people who, despite what some might proclaim to the contrary, no longer really believe in the goodness of this state, its leaders or its future.
This genre of elections had its genesis in 1973, when Tom Ellis and Jesse Helms began the Congressional Club. They completely changed election campaigns through the use of computer-generated mail lists, using them in organized, sophisticated techniques to raise political donations. Those previously unheard-of large amounts of dollars were then employed to develop negative television ads and direct-mail pieces that stoked emotions and provoked negative attitudes toward opponents.
Politics has always been a contact sport, but I believe elections started down a slippery slope because of the Congressional Club — and they’ve gotten progressively worse. Nary a word is uttered about what a candidate believes or hopes to accomplish. Instead, almost all energy is devoted to telling us why the opponent is bad.
Equally obvious are the big-money, outside independent expenditure groups that once again proved they can buy elections. Political parties haven’t really mattered since the 1980s; now they are little more than funnels for candidates so that donors can circumvent campaign contribution limits.
It’s those nebulous-named groups outside our state, funded by donors they aren’t required to identify, that are the tipping point in too many campaigns. They can accuse, demean, spew hate or tell lies without much fear of retribution. We are reaping the results of the Supreme Court’s Citizens United verdict, and it is both alarming and dangerous.
Can we reverse these trends? If so, who or what is going to make it happen? If not, what is to become of elections and politics?
Sadly, we’ve yet to hear substantive and positive responses to those questions, but we can hope, for the future of this state and nation, they are forthcoming.
Tom Campbell is a North Carolina Hall of Fame broadcaster and columnist who has covered North Carolina public policy issues since 1965. He recently retired from writing, producing and moderating the statewide half-hour TV program “N.C. Spin” that aired for 22 ½ years. Email him at email@example.com.
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