Ted Budd arrives in a black SUV dressed like a preppy suburban dad: plaid shirt tucked into tan khakis, a blue belt adorned with silhouettes of North Carolina, and Brooks running shoes.

It’s a humid July Saturday morning, and Pat’s Place, a one-story diner with yellow cinderblock walls in Statesville, is the first stop on a busy day of campaigning. The Iredell County Sheriff and about a half-dozen of his deputies are waiting inside the crowded breakfast spot next to a farm-equipment dealer. One man sitting in a booth in front of a plate of eggs and bacon wears a dark-blue T-shirt that reads, “Biden inflation. The cost of voting stupid.”

Budd takes a seat opposite Sheriff Darren Campbell, a barrel-chested man with a thin gray goatee, and the two talk about crime, border security, and inflation—the central trifecta of Budd’s campaign and popular talking points for Republicans nationwide.

“North Carolina is a border state,” Campbell says. “We’re a day and a half from the border.”

“Anything that happens on the border, happens here 72 hours later,” Budd agrees.

As the breakfast meeting breaks up, Budd does a round of handshakes. It’s a friendly room. One of the waitresses poses for a photo between pouring coffee and delivering plates of hot food. The deputies join Budd in front of the restaurant for a group photo. This is GOP country. There isn’t a Democrat close enough to catch a whiff of bacon.

It’s where Budd is most comfortable as he campaigns for the Senate seat vacated by Sen. Richard Burr. But it’s not where elections have been historically won in North Carolina, a state where a third of voters are unaffiliated and even triumphant candidates have had trouble winning more than 50 percent of the vote. The conventional wisdom is that victory is found in the middle, not on the political margins.

Despite three terms in Congress, Budd has little name recognition statewide. He rode Trump’s stamp of approval and millions from the Club for Growth, a conservative political action committee, to a primary victory in May over former Gov. Pat McCrory. In November, Budd will need urban and suburban voters—many of whom find Trump’s endorsement more bust than boon—if he’s going to beat Democrat Cheri Beasley.

Republicans have long been favored to win this race. A Democrat hasn’t won a U.S. Senate race in North Carolina in 14 years, and Trump won the state in 2016 and 2020. Midterm elections tend to favor the party that’s out of the White House, even without rising inflation and an ongoing pandemic, and Biden’s favorability ratings are not stellar.

Yet it’s been hard to suss out who exactly Ted Budd is beyond his relationship to the former president. He does little media, he didn’t participate in primary debates last spring, and his limited number of campaign events this summer have been in deeply red territory. Average people don’t have much to say about him, good or bad.

A June Civitas poll put Budd ahead of Beasley by 5 points. By August, the same pollster had them tied at 42.3 percent. Another, from Blueprint Polling, put Beasley ahead by 4. FiveThirtyEight now has them running neck-and-neck.

The polling is making some Republican leaders, who agreed to speak about internal party politics on condition of anonymity, worry Budd’s losing a fight that was his to win.

“I think Budd is running a terrible campaign,” one former official from the state Republican Party said. “He has not put forth a vision of what he’d do for the state. If I were the Democrats, this race is where I’d put a lot of money, because Budd has blown it. This should have been an easy win.”

‘Distinctly North Carolinian’

Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd’s campaign, pushed back on the idea that the race isn’t going well for him.

“We have to continue to run a good campaign, but I feel great about Ted’s chances of winning this thing,” Felts said via email. “Ted is a great guy who connects well with voters and he’s working hard across the state talking about how to make life better for North Carolinians by working to address the problems of inflation and gas prices.”

Budd’s nice guy charms are a common refrain. Now 50, he grew up on a 300-acre family farm in Davie County, where he still lives with his wife and three children.

Budd was the guy who everyone thought would do something positive, said high school friend Todd Kiger, so he isn’t surprised he made it to Congress.

Kiger, a corporate pilot, met Budd in 1987 as football teammates and they kept up through college and into adulthood. He described Budd as a man of faith, a good listener, and someone who has stayed humble despite the trappings of the office.

“Doesn’t matter if you’re in Davie County or if you’re on Capitol Hill. He has remained grounded,” Kiger said. “It takes someone very special to do that.”

North Carolina Senate candidate Ted Budd shakes hands with John Jewell, right, during a Law Enforcement Officers Breakfast Roundtable at Pat’s Place in Statesville, N.C., on Saturday, July 9, 2022. Photos by Andrew Craft

Budd went on to Appalachian State, where he graduated with a business degree in 1994, and then spent five years at Dallas Theological Seminary, where he earned a degree in educational leadership. He considered a career in the church, but instead joined the janitorial company his father had bought in 1963 and expanded into the Budd Group, which also does landscaping and maintenance for commercial buildings.

After earning an MBA from Wake Forest University, Budd bought ProShots, a shooting range that was in bankruptcy in Rural Hall, a small town just north of Winston-Salem. He reopened it for police training and later to the public.

Budd said his entrance into politics was unexpected, and he only decided in 2016 to run for Congress. “It’s more of a calling than an ambition,” he told me in the car as we shuttled between his events that July weekend.

Newly drawn maps had created a district stretching from the northern Charlotte suburbs, through Statesville and Salisbury, and up to Greensboro. Budd joined a field of 16 for the Republican nomination, winning with 20 percent of the fractured field. He went on to win 56 percent in the general election, and successfully defended his seat in 2018 and 2020.

Budd arrived in Washington at the same time as Trump, and fell in lockstep with his agenda. Budd’s voting record is staunchly conservative, with a 98 percent lifetime score from the Heritage Foundation. He is a member of the House Freedom Caucus, whose members—considered the most conservative of the party and its most ardent defenders of Trump—include Reps. Matt Gaetz, Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Lauren Boebert.

Budd supports a total ban on abortion, even in the case of rape or incest, or to save the mother’s life. His voting record is in line with that of the most conservative branch of the party: against bills that would provide statutory authority for same-sex and interracial marriages and a protection to the right to contraception; the Inflation Reduction Act, which earmarked funds for deficit reduction; and a recent manufacturing bill.

When Burr confirmed last year that he would not seek reelection after 17 years in the Senate, the jostling for the Republican nomination ramped up.

Lara Trump, a Wrightsville Beach native and wife of Eric Trump, the former president’s son,wasrumored to becontemplating a bid, butdeclined to run. On April 23,Budd traveled to Mar-a-Lagoto getTrump’sblessing, and announced his candidacy five days after the meeting. He earned Trump’s endorsement in June. The endorsement took Budd from a long-shot candidate to the frontrunner.

“He endorsed me because I support America First policies,” Budd told me. “And I can talk about all the things that made life better in that era. But then I tell people that my style is distinctly North Carolinian. And it seems to give people a sigh of relief.”

I asked him what “distinctly North Carolinian” means.

“I’m going to try to win politically,” he said. “But I don’t want to be disrespectful to anybody … more than being a Republican or a conservative, I’m a Christian.”

Budd brought up his faith several times over the course of the day, but didn’t elaborate much when I asked about it.

“It permeates who I am,” he said. “I want to let people know that this is who I am. I also don’t want to use it as sort of a political feature, like, ‘Hey, vote for me because of this.’ I don’t like that narrative. I think that’s inauthentic. People can smell that a mile away.”

There’s a glimpse of what “distinctly North Carolinian” might mean at his second stop, in the Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area, a crag created from a former quarry nestled in the foothills of Alexander County.

It’s an impromptu stop to meet with a group of Republican leaders and candidates at a picnic shelter. It’s over 80 degrees, and oppressively humid. Everyone in Budd’s entourage is sweating within a few steps of the air-conditioned SUV. After they talk, a ranger gives a short tour. A few climbers work the cliffs, ignoring the business-casual interlopers. Budd stops to talk with a group of climbers near the parking lot while everyone else retreats to the shaded picnic tables.

Budd takes a tour of Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area with park ranger Joey Petriella and local leaders in Hiddenite, N.C. Photos by Andrew Craft
Budd, center, and local leaders pose for a group photo at Rocky Face Mountain Recreational Area. Photos by Andrew Craft

A group of four men in their early 20s gathers around him. It’s the first time he appears animated, engaged. His shoulders relax. A hint of a smile creases his lips as he talks about flying his plane over Grandfather Mountain on Sundays. He promises to waggle the wings the next time he flies by.

When he mentions the campaign, he isn’t trying to sell them on it—he’s just explaining why he’s in chinos while everyone else is in shorts and climbing shoes. No longer on auto-pilot, they talk briefly about the climbers’ hometown, the small business where they all work, and, of course, climbing.

The scrum breaks up after a few minutes. As Budd walks toward his SUV, he calls out, “Be safe. Belay on!”

Hammer Violence

Budd casts the Senate race as a battle for the future of North Carolina. His commercials offer a grab-bag of Republican talking points: opportunity, personal responsibility, individual prosperity, and crushing the “radical left.”

His first campaign commercial featured a monster truck crushing “the liberal agenda.” The Senate is the “last line of defense against the Left’s woke, socialist agenda and weak foreign policy,” Budd’s website says. “Putting America first is the only way that our country will succeed.”

Budd’s ad on border security shows him walking along the border wearing a pistol.

“Open borders. Crime. Drugs. The worst president ever,” intones a narrator. “That’s why we need fighters like Ted Budd in the Senate. Ted Budd is endorsed by Trump and backed by Border Patrol to put America first.”

Budd said everything the Democrats do makes life harder for Americans.

“Joe Biden, Cheri Beasley, and the radical leftists who pull their strings are making America woke and broke,” Budd warns in one commercial. “I’m Ted Budd, and I’m running for Senate to stop the madness, because working families need a fighter to stand up and crush the broken Biden-Beasley agenda once and for all.”

Budd admits he doesn’t know Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, beyond a handshake at a parade. To be fair, her campaign presence hasn’t been much more visible than his. (She declined to appear at an event in Durham this week with Vice President Kamala Harris.)

“It is not personal,” Budd said. “I’m just saying that her worldview actually will hurt people. It will make things more expensive at the pump. It will make groceries harder to buy and more expensive. I think her decisions would make crime worse, not better.”

One issue is police funding. Campbell joked with Budd at breakfast about buying a second boat because he was afraid Biden was going to take all his money as part of the “defund the police movement.” But Beasley doesn’t support defunding the police. Standing shoulder to shoulder with law enforcement officers in Durham this week, she promised to work across the aisle and increase funding to address officer shortages and the opioid crisis.

Crime is a popular talking point in Budd’s speech; guns and violence are not. When school shootings and preparedness came up at the breakfast meeting with the sheriff, the solutions they discussed included staging ballistic shields in classrooms and the ability to remotely monitor school cameras.

It was just weeks after 19 students and two teachers were gunned down in Uvalde, Texas, and days after a shooting at a July 4 parade killed seven people. During our drive between campaign stops, Budd talked briefly about mass shootings. They’re tragic, he said, but he doesn’t think it should be called “gun violence.”

“I think it’s a misnomer,” he said. “I think we don’t talk about car violence. We don’t talk about hammer or knife violence, all these others. Why the focus on the hardware in these circumstances? We have a human problem, not a hardware problem.”

“There’s no hammer ban because you can’t put a 30-round magazine in a hammer,” I replied. “You have to address some of the hardware, don’t you?”

“Look, I think a person that shouldn’t have access to an AR shouldn’t have access to a six-round revolver either,” Budd said. “You just keep firearms out of the hands of people that are known to be dangerous.”

But how? In June, Congress passed a bipartisan gun-safety bill negotiated by 10 Republican senators—including N.C. Sen. Thom Tillis—and 10 Democratic senators. It was the first firearms legislation Congress has passed in nearly three decades, expanding both background checks and a law that prevents people convicted of domestic abuse from owning a gun.

Budd voted against it, saying he feared it would infringe on the due-process rights of law-abiding citizens.

“I think people want to legislate quickly as a knee-jerk response,” he said. “It makes them feel better that they’ve done something.”

As a gun-store owner, Budd said he knows better than most what it takes to buy and sell a gun. He said his staff undergoes extensive training, and he trusts his employees to make the final call about selling to someone.

“It’s never worth it to sell to someone questionable,” he said. “We’ve had to tell people, ‘Today’s not your day.’”

“You go beyond the statutory requirements?” I asked.

“In our training we do,” Budd said. “We look for signs. We just try to be very, very aware, because we realize this is such a sacred right for Americans. When people have problems, we want to keep it out of their hands. We don’t want to ever deny anybody the right, but at the same time, it’s not worth ever being dangerous. Safety is paramount.”

It’s a difficult question to navigate – one that, for Budd, is best decided by store clerks, not lawmakers.

A Warm Reception

About 50 people crowd into the backroom of Claremont’s Boxcar Grille, each with a “Ted Budd for Senate” sticker on their shirt. A few are wearing Trump campaign shirts, and the head of the women’s auxiliary is dressed head-to-toe in red, white, and blue—a living Fourth of July party.

The sheriff introduces Budd, calling him a fighter who shares their conservative values.

Budd speaks to a group of supporters at a candidate meet and greet at the Boxcar Grille on Saturday, July 9, 2022, in Claremont, N.C. Photos by Andrew Craft

Budd launches into his stump speech, which starts with inflation and a story about a receptionist who can’t afford gas and is afraid she won’t be able to retire. He talks about border security and rising crime stats. (In the intro, the sheriff had bragged about how they’d lowered crime.)

The speech is folksy but lacks specifics, blaming the country’s current problems on President Biden’s policies—which Budd assures the crowd Beasley will rubber-stamp if she wins. Budd says little about what he will do, except fight—for what, exactly, is unclear.

“If you show up in November,” he says. “I will do every single thing I can do to make your life better.”

While Budd has Trump’s backing, he lacks the former president’s charisma. Budd comes across as stiff and plastic—pull the string and a talking point comes out. But it goes over well in a room full of true believers.

Catawba County Republican Party Chair Deric Skeen, 61, told me after the speech that he was frustrated with all levels of government. He saw Budd, despite three terms in Congress, as one of the new guys, while Tillis and Burr have become part of the Washington establishment.

“I think they’ve enriched themselves,” Skeen said. “Ted knows what it means to pay your employees. I’m a small-business owner myself. It takes a lot of hard work, a lot of hours. He hasn’t been in politics all his life.”

Trump endorsing Budd meant a lot to Skeen.

“[Trump] loves America and wants to do what’s best for the working class,” said Skeen. “He fundamentally changed the Republican Party. We’ve not been represented for years.”

Trump’s Guy In N.C.

Being a Trump acolyte served Budd well in the Republican primary, where he won 99 out of 100 counties. He lost only Mecklenburg County, where his opponent, former governor Pat McCrory, had been mayor.

November is a different race.

“Before the primary, the idea was, ‘I’m Trump’s guy and I’m going to let folks know I’m Trump’s guy and let the outside money trash McCrory,’” said Mitch Kokai, a senior political analyst at the conservative John Locke Foundation. “For the most part, he sat back and relied on the fact he was the Trump-endorsed candidate. No one thought he was going to win by such a substantial margin.”

Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, isn’t surprised that Budd has leaned heavily on Trump’s endorsement rather than policy prescriptions.

“This modern conservatism is a cult of personality,” Bitzer said. “It is geared toward a more authoritarian dynamic. ‘We feel aggrieved. We’ve been in power so long and now society is changing, and we don’t want to lose power. We need to batten down the hatches and turn things back 60 years.’”

Budd’s website has downplayed his allegiance to Trump somewhat in recent weeks. It now features a range of endorsements, not just the former president.

“It’s pretty basic — general elections have different dynamics than primary elections,” campaign adviser Felts told the New York Times. “We face a female opponent, so we’ve added prominent female politicians who have endorsed Ted.”

But Felts told The Assembly it isn’t his candidate who has an issue with presidential baggage. Trump won the state twice, he noted, while Beasley is “stuck with an anchor in the form of Joe Biden and won’t campaign with him because she knows the agenda she supports has nothing to celebrate for North Carolina’s working families.”

Still, Budd’s alignment with the former president is hard to shake. Hejoineda Supreme Courtcase rejecting electoral votes for President Joe Biden in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. And on January 6, Buddvoted to reject election results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, even after Trump supporters stormed the Capitol.

Felts argued Budd was just “responding to concerns of constituents across his district” and using his “Constitutional authority to lodge an objection.”

Budd also said he also warned people to stay away from the Stop the Steal Rally that day.

“I was like, ‘Look, probably not a good time to be in Washington,’” Budd told me. He called it a gut feeling, not that he had any advance knowledge of the eventual riot.

Budd was in the House Chamber preparing to vote when the riot started. He could hear rioters chanting death threats at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Vice President Mike Pence, and beating on the chamber doors as security guards ordered an evacuation.

“Did you feel like your security was threatened?” I asked.

“Yes and no,” he said. “This is the time to remain calm and just make sure everybody’s okay.”

As he followed his colleagues to safety, Budd said he made sure the newly elected Rep. Madison Cawthorn, who uses a wheelchair, was safe. He then helped another lawmaker down the stairs and watched the rest of the riot play out on television from a colleague’s office. Later on podcasts and interviews, he called January 6 a “bad day.”

On our ride to his next campaign stop, Budd condemned the actions of Trump’s supporters that day, but in the same breath attacked the credibility of the January 6 committee as “political theater” put on by enemies of the former president.

“There are still a lot of questions that I don’t think are being asked in a level-headed manner,” he said. “I think there’s a lot more questions to be asked. I don’t even know what questions to ask, but it was a bad day for our country, bottom line. But when I’m out here in Alexander County or the other counties, very few people are asking about that.”

Budd is right about the last part. No one at any of his stops talked about January 6.

“A ‘bad day for our country’ is a nice way of spinning it,” I said. “That was a group of people trying to upset the democratic process.”

“You’re talking about the people outside that came into the Capitol,” Budd said. “I would agree that there just needs to be a full, nonpartisan investigation, and we’re not seeing that right now.”

What about Trump’s role in all of it? “Some of the things that have come out subsequently, even if 50 percent of it is true—it’s pretty damning stuff,” I said.

“You’ve got to layer it in with the other things, the questions that aren’t being asked,” Budd said. “What would the old proverb say? ‘A story seems right until the rest is told.’ I think the rest of the story is not being told right now. You got to have all of it out there.”

“What do you think the rest of the story is?” I asked.

“Doesn’t matter what I think, you just got to get to it,” Budd said. “I don’t have this narrative and I just want it proven. The left is doing that. They’re looking for things that are leading to confirmation bias. I just want the truth out there.”

“But what if this is the truth?”I asked.

“Now you’re into, like, Twilight Zone stuff,” he said.

In It for Them

In mid-August, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell predicted that Republicans would flip the House. He was less confident about the Senate.

“Senate races are just different—they’re statewide, candidate quality has a lot to do with the outcome,” he said.

Pundits figured McConnell was talking about Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania, J. D. Vance in Ohio, and Herschel Walker in Georgia, all of whom have generated scandalous or at the very least embarrassing headlines nationally. Budd has generated neither, but some state GOP officials are concerned he hasn’t done much to expand beyond the Trump base.

The former president’s influence, said conservative political analyst Kokai, “is certainly not the same selling point as it is in the primary. [Budd] can’t just say ‘I’m the Trump guy, vote for me.’ There needs to be something more than that, and he seems to be relying on general trends helping Republicans.”

It means Budd has to go beyond his base.

“It’s impossible to win statewide North Carolina without building that coalition with the unaffiliated female voter. And it’s a real problem right now for all Republicans,” said a GOP political operative.

Felts challenged the idea that such a coalition is necessary to win North Carolina.

“North Carolina is not purple. It’s distinctly red or distinctly blue with a small handful of folks in the middle who are not focused on political campaigns over the summer,” Felts said. “Unless your last name is Nostradamus, no one can say yet if this race is gonna hinge on base turnout or peeling votes from the middle, because those data sets don’t exist yet.”

Felts said Budd has crisscrossed the state and grown a grassroots following in all 100 counties, and blamed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a “poorly dictated” voting schedule that kept Budd in D.C.

Budd’s grassroots support, Felts said, is more important than campaign events.

“It’s neighbors reaching neighbors,” he said. “That sort of personal connection carries more influence than any piece of mail or campaign email.”

But Budd told me on the campaign trail he needs to win over more moderate voters, too.

“You got to make your case to people that may be skeptics,” Budd told me during our day on the road. “They may be those remaining Reagan Democrats that are out there. The unaffiliated. They got to realize that you’re actually in it for them. And you’re not just coasting on someone else’s name.”

In late August, The Greenville Daily Reflector reported on a Budd campaign stop alongside Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson and controversial congressional candidate Sandy Smith, at People’s Baptist Church in Greenville.

Robinson called on God to help “the righteous to once again be in authority” and railed against the people in Raleigh who “put that pornography in our schools.” Budd leaned into a somewhat softer version of similar points.

“I look around and I see our freedoms trampled underfoot by the obscene advances of the radical left, whether it be through those open-border policies, threats to the Second Amendment, or attacks on Christians, churches, and schools like this,” Budd said. “As believers, we know that’s not the path that leads to human prosperity and human flourishing. It’s the path instead that leads down the road to destruction.”

This kind of appeal worked in May. Budd seems committed to trying it again in November.

Kevin Maurer is is The Assembly‘s Wilmington bureau chief. He is a three-time New York Times bestselling co-author and has covered war, politics, and general interest stories for GQ, Men’s Journal, The Daily Beast and The Washington Post. Email him at kevin@theassemblync.com.

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