The loss of a Donald Trump-backed candidate in a Texas special election is giving pause to some political operatives in North Carolina’s Senate race.
On Tuesday, a Navy veteran supported by former Texas Gov. Rick Perry beat the Trump-endorsed Susan Wright in a Republican special election primary for Texas’s 6th Congressional District. The loss garnered national attention as political strategists try to determine the value of a post-presidency Trump endorsement.
In North Carolina, some were paying particular attention, as Trump had already weighed in on the Republican primary for Senate and given his full endorsement to Rep. Ted Budd on June 5. He is joined by Club for Growth, a conservative organization that had already raised more than $5 million for Budd by June 21, and which also backed the losing candidate in the Texas race.
Budd’s two main competitors — former Rep. Mark Walker and former governor Pat McCrory — could see the loss as a harbinger of things to come: that Club for Growth’s money and Trump’s endorsement are far from a sure ticket to success in Republican primaries.
“Once again, a DC Super PAC spent millions on a candidate whose voter card they wanted to control only to be rejected by the voters,” Walker said on Twitter. His campaign did not respond to a request for comment on what the Texas election says of Trump’s endorsement.
The Texas race also gives reason to revisit a memo authored by Paul Shumaker, an adviser to McCrory’s campaign, in June that cited polling to predict the Republican Party’s chances in next year’s general election.
A hit for the Trump endorsement?
Club for Growth declined to comment on what, if anything, its loss in Texas might mean for North Carolina. The group’s president, David McIntosh, said in a statement that “President Trump remains the leader of the party and no one will win the NC Senate Republican primary and general election with an anti-Trump message.”
The group spent $60,000 on an ad that ran during the Olympic games on Thursday attacking McCrory, the early leader in polling and fundraising. McCrory’s campaign also declined to comment on what the loss could mean for the value of a Trump endorsement going forward.
“With the short campaign period in Texas, the Trump endorsement and Club for Growth money should have made it easier to win,” said Jordan Shaw, an adviser to McCrory’s campaign. “But the Club gave Trump bad advice and pushed him into endorsing an unvetted candidate who couldn’t win, just like they’ve done in North Carolina.”
Trump’s endorsement has never been bulletproof. Rep. Madison Cawthorn won in a primary runoff by 31 percentage points last year, despite his opponent, Lynda Bennett, having the endorsements of Trump and then-White House Chief of Staff Mark Meadows.
But as the former president gets more time away from the White House, his pull among voters becomes more questionable.
Budd’s campaign has been able to leverage Trump’s endorsement by raising $700,000 from individual contributors, bolstering an additional $1.1 million in campaign cash that Budd carried over from his House races. Jonathan Felts, one of Budd’s advisers, said the endorsement has “opened up a lot of new doors for Ted Budd,” and that the campaign’s primary strategy is to connect with voters on Budd’s own merits — regardless of any endorsement.
On the Texas race, Budd’s campaign could argue that a special election in one Texas district is inherently different than North Carolina, and that the comparison may not hold up in a statewide race.
Beating the Democrats
Though McCrory’s campaign has not commented on the overall impacts of a Trump endorsement, Shumaker released polling last month in a memo arguing that the endorsement might actually hurt a Republican’s chances in the general election. (The memo was not paid for or commissioned by the McCrory campaign.)
The memo and its polling contends that the Trump specter will play a key role as voters head to the polls. First, it argued that Democrats will continue to use the Jan. 6 riot at the U.S. Capitol to win the support of unaffiliated voters, a group rising in number in North Carolina.
“Unaffiliated is already the largest group in dozens of NC counties,” Chris Cooper, a political science professor at Western North Carolina University, said in an email. “To win an election — statewide, congressional, General Assembly, or local, you can’t ignore Unaffiliated voters.”
Among the unaffiliated voters cited in Shumaker’s poll, 47% said they would prefer a candidate who pledged to help President Joe Biden’s agenda over one who voted against certifying the presidential election results — the issue that spurred the riot. Just 30% said they would prefer a candidate who voted against certifying the election, and 23 percent declined to answer.
Budd voted against election certification. Walker had left office just prior to the vote. McCrory told the Observer this month that he would have voted to certify Biden as the winner.
Additionally, about 49% of all voters said they would prefer a Biden-endorsed candidate, to 39% who said they would prefer one endorsed by Trump. Suburban and college-educated voters preferred Biden’s endorsement by an even larger margin.
“When comparing a Trump endorsed candidate to a Biden endorsed candidate, (Republicans’) advantage with the Unaffiliated voters evaporates,” Shumaker wrote, adding “Candidates for state and federal office at any level who are on the wrong side of these issues will alienate suburban voters and jeopardize Republicans’ chances of winning in 2022.”
McCrory has more distance from Trump than either Walker or Budd. Of all the candidates who will have to contend with this polling, Budd is the most likely, with the Trump endorsement and with having voted to not certify the election results on Jan. 6.
Cooper said Jan. 6 does pose a problem for Republicans, particularly in winning the suburbs. This week, a House select committee investigating the Capitol assault heard emotional testimony from law enforcement officers who defended the building.
Michael Fanone, an officer with the Washington Metropolitan Police Department, said he thought he might be murdered as he was dragged from the building by the crowd. Those stories, along with videos from the scene, could resonate with unaffiliated and moderate voters even into next year, and the messaging could prove most effective in the suburbs.
“There’s no doubt that the suburbs are key in 2022, and into the future,” Cooper said. “With only a few exceptions, rural areas are becoming redder and urban areas are becoming bluer, leaving the suburbs as the key battleground.”
Though neither McCrory nor Walker voted against election certification — and though neither got the Trump endorsement — both candidates will have to get the votes of Trump supporters to win in November. Along with that, the polling indicates that they will need some level of separation from the former president to win enough suburban and unaffiliated voters to pull off a victory.
Felts, the Budd adviser, said every Republican candidate is linked to Trump, whether they have the endorsement or not.
“It’s naive for anyone to suggest that a Republican is not going to have to navigate the Trump waters,” Felts said.