Home Opinion OPINION: A proxy fight for the soul of the GOP?

OPINION: A proxy fight for the soul of the GOP?

With the battle over maps sucking the air out of the political conversation in North Carolina for the first two months of the year, the Republican U.S. Senate primary has gotten little attention. That’s about to change.

According to an article in Politico (Wednesday) morning, former governor Pat McCrory is beginning to air ads attacking Congressman Ted Budd. And he’s attacking him as a Russian dupe, which really means he’s a Trump dupe. 

Budd has the endorsement of Donald Trump and the support of Club for Growth, a well-funded GOP-allied SuperPAC. The Club has been attacking McCrory for months with apparently little impact. The former governor still leads in the polls and, according to Politico, Budd is struggling with fundraising. McCrory has been silent on the attacks until now. 

The N.C. Senate primary could turn into a battle for the soul of the Republican party. For five years, since Trump’s election, most Republicans have been loath to criticize him, mostly out of fear and self-interest. They believed, correctly, that the GOP base was so fired up over Trump that crossing him could be political suicide. McCrory, though, doesn’t have much of a choice. The former president chose Budd and most people assumed the primary electorate would fall in line. Apparently, it hasn’t. 

Now, McCrory is linking Budd to his praise of Vladimir Putin. Budd was parroting Trump in an effort to woo GOP primary voters in thrall of authoritarian strongmen. Now, those words might come back to haunt him. Budd is trying to back off his statements, calling Putin “evil.” It’s a bit late for that. 

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McCrory might not be the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s now representative of the old-line, Reaganite GOP establishment. His primary could prove that rumors of the conservative movement’s death have been premature, to paraphrase Mark Twain. According to polls, he holds a double-digit lead over his opponents in a primary where he only needs 30% to avoid a run-off. 

Ironically, Trump’s praise of Putin could prove to be the unraveling of the pro-authoritarian, nationalist wing of the GOP. After his campaign was cleared of collaboration with Russia, Trump continued to talk admiringly of Putin and then was impeached for trying to withhold aid to Ukraine. Now, the GOP rank and file has moved solidly in support of the Ukrainians and candidates like Budd are trying to quickly do an about-face. 

The primary could turn into a proxy fight between the movement conservatives and the nationalists, but it could also turn into a murder-suicide. If Budd and McCrory keep their fire aimed at each other, candidates Mark Walker and Marjorie Eastman could become choices of voters who tire of negative ads and declare a pox on both their houses. In 2004, in the Iowa caucus, frontrunners Howard Dean and Dick Gephardt lost to John Kerry and John Edwards, respectively, after brutalizing each other in the weeks leading up to the vote.

Regardless, the Republican U.S. Senate primary in North Carolina is going to be one to watch.  

Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Mills spent 20 years as a political and public affairs consultant. Republished from PoliticsNC.com.