Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory acknowledged reality in 2020: former President Donald Trump lost. He then explained why – and objected to Trump’s baseless effort in Congress to overturn the election.
Now a candidate for Senate, McCrory is facing the same threat as other Republicans in key races: a primary against challengers who vigorously defended Trump’s actions in the runup to the January 6 insurrection and backed Trump’s Big Lie that he actually won reelection.
It’s a dynamic that is consistent in races across the country – whether it’s Trump defender Mo Brooks’ Senate bid in Alabama or Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s reelection effort after repudiating the then-President’s role in the deadly Capitol Hill riot. Candidates like Brooks who aligned with Trump’s endeavor to subvert the will of the electorate – and continue to do so – are likelier to win over his coveted endorsement that could set them apart from their GOP primary foes.
And in the high-stakes North Carolina primary, McCrory is trying to reconcile his criticism of Trump from his radio program, telling CNN he backed “almost all” of the former President’s policies, supported his reelection effort and opposed both times Trump was impeached by the House, including on a charge of inciting the Capitol insurrection.
Yet since Election Day, McCrory has at times offered unsparing criticism of Trump in candid comments on his radio program, according to a CNN review of his remarks. McCrory dismissed that there was “something devious” leading to President Joe Biden winning the race, saying that Trump’s name-calling, “disastrous” first debate performance and personality cost him the election, turning off “soccer moms” in the suburbs. He said the then-President’s legal team “failed miserably,” saying it was Trump’s “fault” for bringing them on board – and said his pressure campaign on Georgia officials to find enough votes to reverse Biden’s win raised “some possible legal issues.”
At one point, McCrory compared Trump to 2018 Georgia Democratic gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams for not accepting defeat, saying they were both “destroying democracy.”
“I tell you I lost the election about every day,” said McCrory on November 23, referring to his concession in 2016 after his campaign alleged voter fraud and requested a recount. “Stacey Abrams says she won the election, she was robbed of the election. I never say that. Stacey Abrams is getting a free ride by the national media because she’s doing the exact same thing Donald Trump is doing: destroying democracy.”
McCrory says he’d support Trump again despite past criticism
Asked about the comments, McCrory instead stressed his allegiance with Trump, noting that he supported the then-President’s reelection effort – and was aligned with virtually all of the Trump agenda, except massive deficit spending. He said that the second impeachment shouldn’t have happened because it was the rioters, rather than Trump, who were culpable for the attack in January on the Capitol.
McCrory said he’d welcome Trump’s endorsement and would support him again if he were the 2024 GOP presidential nominee. And he said that 95% of his comments in media appearances have been favorable to the former president.
“During the past four years, on both the radio and on ‘Meet the Press,’ I was a huge defender – and continue to be a huge defender – of Trump policies,” McCrory said. “You could have pulled out hours upon hours of shows where I’m a very strong defender of his tax cuts, of his immigration policy, of his trade policies.”
“I will continue to fight for those policies as North Carolina’s next US senator,” he added. “Trump policies trump everything because they were right.”
McCrory is currently viewed as the front-runner in the North Carolina Senate primary against former Rep. Mark Walker and other Republicans. But GOP Rep. Ted Budd is expected to join the race, and Lara Trump, Trump’s daughter-in-law, has not yet ruled out a campaign.
Walker has sensed an opening in McCrory’s criticism of Trump, who won the state both in 2016 and 2020. “One day he’s all about pro-Trump; the next day he’s taking a personal shot,” Walker told CNN.
While Walker did not say that Trump won the race, he said there were “problems with the election,” and there were over the past four years “some disingenuous behavior that has undermined the sanctity of the election ballot.”
And Budd, who voted to throw out the electoral results in Arizona and Pennsylvania, just hours after the pro-Trump mob stormed the Capitol and signed onto a Texas lawsuit seeking to discard millions of votes across key battleground states, would likely hammer the former governor over those comments if he entered the race.
Jonathan Felts, Budd’s political adviser, said that there was a “disconnect” between the former governor and ex-president that the congressman could exploit.
“Given President Trump’s continued popularity in North Carolina, McCrory’s disconnect with Trump and Trump voters will be a significant problem for him in this primary,” Felts said.
But McCrory defended Congress’ certification of Trump’s loss because the “conservative standpoint,” he argued, is that states, rather than the federal government, are responsible for their elections.
The Trump test
The Trump litmus test isn’t unique to North Carolina. In Alabama, Brooks won the Trump endorsement in large part because he was a leader of the failed effort to overturn the election in Congress, even speaking in inflammatory terms to the “Stop the Steal” rally that preceded the riot.
Brooks, in an interview last week, continued to defend his remarks at the rally where he said: “Today is the day American patriots start taking down names and kicking ass.”
“The only thing I asked anyone to do at the United States Capitol was to chant the words U-S-A,’” Brooks insisted, claiming his remarks referred to the 2022 midterms.
Nevertheless, his staunch defense of Trump’s election conspiracies has made him a clear favorite in the race, even though the former President’s one-time ambassador to Slovenia, Lynda Blanchard, is running, and other candidates are considering campaigns as well.
In March, Trump threw his support behind a long-time friend, football great and Texas resident Herschel Walker, to run for Senate in Georgia, a few months after Walker tweeted a video backing the former President’s efforts to overturn his election loss. Trump responded then: “Herschel is speaking the truth!”
Trump is also getting behind Rep. Jody Hice for Georgia Secretary of State over Republican incumbent Brad Raffensperger, who enraged Trump by certifying Biden’s victory there.
Some candidates eager to receive the ex-president’s endorsement are declining to call out Trump on his election claims. In Alaska, Murkowski’s Republican challenger Kelly Tshibaka questioned the legitimacy of Biden’s win in a recent interview with CNN.
When asked whether she agreed with Trump that he won, Tshibaka responded, “We don’t know the outcome of the 2020 election.”
Divisive primary awaits North Carolina
In North Carolina, Republicans are bracing for a brutal primary fight – and are awaiting a decision by Trump’s daughter-in-law, Lara, on whether she’ll run for the seat caused by the retirement of GOP Sen. Richard Burr.
McCrory though has a number of advantages in the Senate GOP primary.
The former one-time governor, who narrowly lost his reelection bid in 2016, is the only candidate to win statewide and is the best-known Republican in the race. He told CNN that besides supporting the “Trump policies” on immigration, taxes, trade and foreign policy, he’d place a “special emphasis” on infrastructure, mental health and drug addiction, while bashing Biden and the Democrats for “spending money like drunken sailors.”
The former governor’s fight over North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which required people at government-run facilities to use the bathrooms that corresponded to the sexes on their birth certificates, could also help him connect with some GOP primary voters, although it caused a major backlash among corporations and LGBT groups.
In the interview, McCrory emphasized his experience as mayor of Charlotte and governor to make the pitch that he’s an outsider to Washington, DC – an indirect shot at Walker and Budd.
“I want to put a focus on our deficit and spending, and look for more efficiencies which, frankly, the Washington insiders have forgotten about,” said McCrory.
The primary race, however, could turn on loyalty to Trump, even though no Republican candidate has aligned with him 100% of the time.
Walker himself noted that he didn’t approve of every Trump tweet “or sometimes the personality.” Budd first supported Texas Sen. Ted Cruz in the 2016 presidential primary before supporting Trump, and occasionally opposed the GOP president, including on increasing the stimulus checks in December to $2,000 per person.
But both Walker and Budd supported the Texas lawsuit contesting Biden’s victory, which the Supreme Court threw out, ruling that the Lone Star state didn’t have standing to challenge the results of others. Then, on January 7, Budd said he supported challenging the certification of the election after the pro-Trump attack on the Capitol because he “resolved to not let a violent mob stop me from giving voice to the thousands of North Carolinians who demanded a debate on the irregularities and Constitutional violations in the presidential election.”
“Going through the constitutional process of debate was never about overturning an election, it was about standing up for the integrity of each and every citizen’s vote,” he added.
Walker, a pastor, has already obtained the support of some social conservatives, including former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. While he views himself as a “bridge builder,” he is also clearly aligning himself with the former President.
When McCrory jumped in the race, Walker said that he was the “most conservative and pro-Trump” member of Congress from North Carolina, and noted that while McCrory had won his governor’s race in 2012, he also had lost gubernatorial campaigns in 2008 and 2016.
But Walker only raised $209,000 in the first quarter of the year — after raising close to $370,000 in December — and has earned the ire of North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis.
Tillis told CNN that McCrory has “good name ID” and a “generally good reputation” from his time in office. He called Budd a “very confident” friend whose candidacy would make it a “competitive race.” But he had no such kind words for Walker.
“I have no support for Mark Walker,” Tillis told CNN. “I don’t think he’s right for the job.”
“You look at his body of work. There’s not a lot to rely on,” he added.
Walker responded that McCrory had hired Tillis’ political strategists and that the senator is “still aggravated” that he and Trump met on a couple occasions to discuss running against him last year. But then, Walker said, he spent time working to reelect Tillis in 2020 to make sure the Republican won.
“We’re no stranger to taking on the establishment, whether it’s Thom Tillis or others,” Walker added. “I’ll match my body of work with Thom Tillis’ body of work any day of the week in the six years that we served [in Congress].”
In an interview last week, Burr said that he didn’t expect Lara Trump to run after she signed a contract this year to be a paid on-air contributor to Fox News. He said McCrory is viewed favorably by North Carolina Republicans and was “fairly confident” that the former governor would be a “very competitive candidate.”
He also dismissed Walker’s anemic fundraising quarter.
“That’s not gonna get you a Senate race,” Burr said.
This story has been updated with additional developments Tuesday.
CNN’s Morgan Rimmer contributed to this report.