With an endorsement from former President Donald Trump bestowed upon one of his opponents this weekend, former North Carolina governor and Charlotte mayor Pat McCrory moves his bid for a U.S. Senate seat forward without Trump’s blessing.
Whether that will have much of an impact in the Republican primary is left to debate. The true power of a Trump endorsement since he left the White House — though generally coveted in Republican primaries — isn’t clear, and McCrory has his own advantage that could carry his campaign further than any endorsement: his name.
McCrory went into the North Carolina GOP convention on Saturday as the clear front runner — and as maybe the only candidate who most voters actually know.
In a recent poll from Cygnal, more than half of the respondents said they had never heard of McCrory’s two main opponents: U.S. Rep. Ted Budd and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker. Just 11% said they had never heard of McCrory. Though Budd received Trump’s endorsement, McCrory’s campaign may not have to alter its strategy in any major way as a result, at least for now.
“The big problem really, for Walker and Budd both, is Pat’s known with all the Republicans and they’re not,” said Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican strategist. “They’re gonna have to spend a lot of money to get where Pat is. That can be done, it can happen, but that’s the first bridge they have to cross.”
The candidates are vying for the seat of U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, the Winston-Salem Republican incumbent who is not seeking reelection.
In their ability to raise money, McCrory also seems to have the advantage. With a deep Rolodex of donors from his time as governor and as mayor of Charlotte, McCrory can raise big money in North Carolina. The issue, now, is that he’ll be competing for money that Budd, and maybe therefore the Trump organization, are also pursuing. If Trump asks his donors to turn their pocketbooks toward Budd, “that’s a real factor,” Wrenn said.
McCrory’s campaign declined to comment for this story. After the North Carolina GOP convention on Saturday, the former governor put out a statement saying he was “disappointed that President Trump has endorsed a Washington insider who has done more to oppose the Trump agenda than anyone in this race.”
During his speech on Saturday, Trump said he couldn’t endorse somebody who had already lost twice — a barely-veiled reference to McCrory, who has lost in two gubernatorial races (in 2008 to Democrat Bev Perdue and in 2016 he lost his re-election bid to Gov. Roy Cooper).
McCrory’s campaign has spent some effort trying to paint him as a Washington, D.C., outsider: a North Carolina-first politician who hasn’t been molded by the politics of Congress. That strategy could be effective in countering the impact of Trump’s endorsement, but could be a double-edged sword, said Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College.
While McCrory can claim to be an outsider in Washington, he is certainly not one in Raleigh or in Charlotte, and voters know that, Bitzer said. And while he and Walker may try to cast themselves as the true Trump Republicans, it may be hard to make that case now that Budd has the endorsement.
“I think it’s now up to Budd and his campaign to capitalize on this,” Bitzer said, adding that upcoming fundraising reports “may be the indicator of where the loyalties, at least among donors, lie.”
McCrory and Trump
After the convention, McCrory said he believed Budd got the endorsement because Trump got bad advice from one of the former president’s former advisers. It is unclear if McCrory’s previous relationship with Trump may have also played a role.
The Trump administration, in considering McCrory for a position, compiled a document with “red flags” that they saw in McCrory, including that he had criticized the former president for his comments about women, calling the comments “disgusting.” The document, originally reported by Axios, also flagged that McCrory had said Trump “needs to have his mouth washed out with soap.”
Though McCrory could use the endorsement to target Republicans and Independents who are disaffected by Trump, Bitzer said there may not be enough of those anti-Trump conservatives to counter the number who might be persuaded by the endorsement.
“A lot of people are still talking about this civil war within the Republican Party,” he said. “I’m not convinced right now that there is an ongoing war because I think the Trump forces have won the party.”
According to a survey published in February by researchers from Northeastern, Harvard, Northwestern and Rutgers universities, 44% of Republicans said a Trump endorsement would not impact their decision in an election, while 45% said it would increase their support a lot or somewhat.
Maybe the most important factor in Saturday’s convention was that Lara Trump, the former president’s daughter-in-law, announced that she would not participate in the race. Dan Barry, former chairman of the Union County GOP, said there were likely major donors and other political activists who were waiting to see what Lara Trump decided to do before they put their support behind a candidate.
With Lara Trump out of the way, McCrory will be left to focus most of his attention on Walker and Budd. And unless Trump comes back to the state to campaign for Budd once the primary draws nearer, McCrory may be able to continue relying on his primary selling point: his name.
McCrory is “still the best known candidate, by a lot,” Wrenn said. “That’s the bottom line.”