RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — In competitive races across the U.S., Republican candidates are distancing themselves from their party's most controversial policies and people — namely, abortion and former President Donald Trump — as Election Day approaches.
Not Ted Budd.
The North Carolina GOP Senate nominee is leaning into support for abortion restrictions and amity with the former Republican president as Democrats fight for an elusive victory in the Southern swing state.
Democratic optimism remains tempered given the state's recent red tilt, but Democratic officials believe Budd, a low-profile congressman who emerged as the GOP's Senate nominee largely because of Trump's backing, gives them a real chance at flipping a seat — and holding the balance of power in Washington — this fall.
Disregarding his critics, Budd is set to appear alongside Trump on Friday night at a rally in Wilmington. The Budd campaign was eager to welcome Trump when the former president's team called, according to adviser Jonathan Felts.
“Trump won North Carolina twice, and an in-person rally is helpful," Felts said, suggesting Trump would help drive turnout, especially “with unaffiliated and/or undecided voters concerned about the economy.”
Others aren't so sure.
“The more Trump emerges, the more Trump is in the news, the better for Democrats,” said David Holian, a political science professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.
Indeed, Trump remains overwhelmingly popular with Republican voters but is less appealing to the moderates and independents who often decide swing-state elections. Trump's national favorable ratings have been roughly even with, or worse than, President Joe Biden's in recent weeks.
Still, some North Carolina Democrats are far from confident in a state where they have suffered painful losses in recent years.
Democratic skepticism comes despite the apparent strength of their Senate nominee, former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, who has a decided fundraising advantage, a record of outperforming other Democrats in statewide elections and a moderate message. She would be the state's first Black senator if elected.
Yet Beasley is also running against negative perceptions of her party.
Trump's rise has fueled a growing sense among some voters in North Carolina, along with those in many other states, that the national Democratic Party has lost touch with the daily struggles of the working class and similar voting blocs. The Democratic-controlled Congress' focus on climate change, for example, hasn't helped inspire voters like Talmage Layton, a 74-year-old farmer from Durham.
Layton said he doesn’t know whether a North Carolina Democrat can make a difference on Capitol Hill in lowering gas prices or pushing back against climate change policies that other Democrats have embraced.
“That’s not anything against Cheri Beasley," Layton said after a recent meeting with Beasley. "I’m a registered Democrat, and I would have no problem voting for a Democrat. But they’ve got to think about the little guy here.”
Not long ago, it looked as if the Democratic Party was poised to take over North Carolina politics.
In 2008, Obama carried the state, becoming the first Democrat to do so since 1976, and Democrat Kay Hagan upset GOP Sen. Elizabeth Dole. Political experts predicted the Democratic Party would step to dominance as a result of increasing urbanization and out-of-state liberals moving in for tech jobs in the Raleigh-Durham and Charlotte regions.
But Republicans took over the state legislature for the first time in over 140 years following the 2010 election and retained it thanks to support from exurban and rural voters and favorably drawn districts. A decade later, Trump became a two-time North Carolina winner, though he won the 2020 election by just 1 percentage point.
While Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper managed to win reelection in 2020, Beasley was one of the party’s casualties. She lost a bid to remain chief justice to a Republican rival by just 401 votes.
Her near-miss turned her into a rising candidate in the race to succeed retiring GOP Sen. Richard Burr.
In one sign of strength, Beasley has consistently raised more money than Budd. And she appears to be generating momentum by seizing on abortion to energize women and independents, relying on the same playbook Democrats have used elsewhere.
Budd, meanwhile, has been outspoken in his opposition to abortion. He co-sponsored a House version of a national 15-week abortion ban introduced by Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham that even Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell distanced himself from.
“My opponent has been in Congress for six years, and every opportunity he’s had to vote for North Carolina, he’s voted against us,” Beasley charged after meeting with farmers at a produce market in Durham before Graham’s bill introduction.
Meanwhile, Republicans in competitive elections in states like Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada and Arizona have distanced themselves from their rigid anti-abortion stances in recent weeks. Others have stripped their websites of references to Trump or his favorite talking points.
In Virginia, a Republican House candidate removed a Trump reference from her Twitter bio. In New Hampshire, Republican Senate nominee Don Bolduc abruptly reversed himself last week when asked about Trump's false claims that the 2020 election was stolen. After spending much of the last year echoing Trump's lies, Bolduc told Fox News he had done more research and concluded, “The election was not stolen.”
Meanwhile, Budd's campaign refused this week to say whether he would accept the 2022 election results, having already voted to block certification of the 2020 election.
Such positions will almost certainly appeal to Trump's base, but political operatives say Budd needs sizable support from moderate, independent voters to be successful. Unaffiliated voters this year surpassed Democrats to become the largest bloc of registered voters in the state.
“Regardless of what your faith background is, you’re dealing with skyrocketing energy prices. You’re dealing with high grocery costs. You’re dealing with high crime. You’re dealing with economic uncertainty,” Budd said after speaking to pastors recently in Greenville. “And so I want to make life better for all North Carolinians and people in our country by the things that I support.”
As Budd has struggled to keep pace with Beasley's fundraising, outside groups have come to his aid.
The McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund and the National Republican Senatorial Committee have spent $17.3 million combined on advertising opposing Beasley, according to Federal Election Commission filings. The Senate Majority Fund, which supports Democratic candidates, and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee have spent close to $4 million in North Carolina while investing far more in high-profile contests in states like Pennsylvania and Arizona.
“We’re committed to making sure voters continue seeing and hearing the truth about Ted Budd,” Senate Majority Fund spokesperson Veronica Woo said.
An arm of the pro-abortion-rights EMILY's List announced this month spending $2.7 million to criticize Budd on abortion as well.
During a recent stop at Perkins Orchard in Durham, Beasley chatted with farmers who gathered around picnic tables and near fresh pumpkins for sale. Some said afterward they were glad to see her interest in their plight.
Jason Lindsay, 34, a first-generation Black farmer from Rocky Mount, said he’s been frustrated with the divisive political environment but is encouraged by Beasley.
“Her temperament here today gave me the first sign of hope that I’ve had in a long time," he said.
Peoples contributed from New York.
Gary D. Robertson And Steve Peoples, The Associated Press