The Pulse

Field notes from the U.S. Senate race – Vol. 6: Putin comments shake up GOP primary

By: - March 14, 2022 5:30 am
Pat McCrory

Ted Budd

Plenty of U.S. Senate campaigns rise and fall over national issues, but less often do they get swept up in international events.

This week in North Carolina proved to be one of those moments with Pat McCrory’s campaign taking to the airwaves to bash Ted Budd’s recent comments about Vladimir Putin, the first Senate ad of its kind nationally this election cycle.

“While Ukrainians bled and died, congressman Budd excused their killer,” McCrory says at the beginning of the 30-second ad, which features a clip of Budd calling Putin a “very intelligent actor” during a February 26 interview on Fox News.

“These are serious times and we need serious senators,” McCrory says at the end of the ad. “I don’t compliment our enemies, I stand for truth and freedom.”

Responding to the ad, a Budd spokesman this week said the congressman takes Putin very seriously and was accurately describing the Russian leader as both intelligent and evil.

Budd comments followed President Donald Trump’s description of Putin as “savvy” and his moves in Ukraine smart geopolitics during a February 23 fundraiser at Mar-a-Lago that Budd attended.

Cheri Beasley

Trump’s comments drew criticism at the time from both GOP candidate Marjorie Eastman, a former army intelligence officer, and Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley.

The new ad highlights a rift in the GOP over Russia’s moves in Ukraine. Last week in a Wall Street Journal column, longtime George W. Bush aide Karl Rove denounced North Carolina Congressman Madison Cawthorn who called Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky a “thug” and said the west was being swayed by his “woke ideologies” at a recent town hall in Asheville.

This week, both North Carolina GOP senators responded to underline their support for the Ukraine cause. Without calling out Cawthorn by name Sen. Thom Tillis noted in a tweet that “the vast majority of Americans and nearly every single member of Congress are united in support of Ukraine’s fight for freedom.”

McCrory’s ad isn’t the only one heating up the airwaves. Club for Growth, which is backing Budd in the primary and has already spent more than $4 million attacking McCrory, has upped its budget for the Senate race from $10 million to $14 million. The PAC’s latest ad attacks McCrory for saying something nice about Dr. Anthony Fauci and suggesting people wear a mask.

The blowback on his Putin comments came as Budd’s campaign was also reacting to questions about poll numbers and whether he can sustain the momentum that made him the top fundraiser in the last quarter.

Mark Walker

Marjorie Eastman

There hasn’t been a full independent poll in the Senate race since a Civitas survey in early January, but another internal poll released this week by the Mark Walker campaign, claims Budd’s numbers are dropping as Walker and Marjorie Eastman gain ground among the large swath of GOP voters who are still undecided.

Although internal polls have to be read with caution, even Trump has recently wondered in public how it’s going here in North Carolina. According to Politico, in remarks at a major RNC fundraiser in New Orleans, Trump asked NCGOP Chair Michael Whatley: “How are we doing? How’s Ted Budd doing? OK?” The audio doesn’t include Whatley’s response, but Trump added: “All right, we gotta get Walker out of that race. Get him out of the race, Michael, right?”

The story did not go over well with the Budd campaign.

Meanwhile Walker, new campaign bus and all, has remained on the road, including joint events with with Lt. Governor Mark Robinson aimed at building his support among evangelicals.

Robinson, a likely candidate for governor in 2024, hasn’t made an official endorsement in the Senate race, but told an audience in Winston-Salem at an event with Walker last week “You need to vote somebody that you see. Somebody who’s not somewhere hiding in the basement, hiding from everybody.”


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Kirk Ross

Kirk Ross, 2022 Election Correspondent, is a longtime North Carolina journalist covering the 2022 U.S. Senate race for Policy Watch and States Newsroom. For the past decade, Kirk has reported on state politics and public policy as a member of the Capital Press Corps for Carolina Public Press and the Washington Post and on environmental, climate change and energy policy for Coastal Review. Kirk was a Chapel Hill News and News & Observer local government and education reporter, managing editor of INDY Week and co-founder and editor of the fondly-remembered Carrboro Citizen weekly. [email protected] 919-737-5096