Trump shapes North Carolina's Republican Senate primary with an early endorsement North Carolina is a swing state with a Senate seat coming open. On the Republican side, the former president made an early endorsement, seeming to set the positioning for the GOP hopefuls.

Trump shapes North Carolina's Republican Senate primary with an early endorsement

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

With the retirement next year of Republican Senator Richard Burr, North Carolina will be home to one of the most closely watched 2022 contests. And an endorsement from former President Trump is already shaping the Republican primary. NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: The field of candidates was still forming when Donald Trump jumped into the fray in the North Carolina Senate primary. For months, his daughter-in-law, Lara Trump, hinted that she would enter the race. But when she opted out in June, he made an endorsement just days later at a state GOP event. His pick, Congressman Ted Budd.

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DONALD TRUMP: And a lot of you don't know him that well, but you're going to know him probably within about two minutes. Ted Budd, please come up.

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TRUMP: Please come up. Please come up, Ted.

GONYEA: Budd himself had only gotten the news from Trump moments earlier.

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TED BUDD: So let's win this together, and let's get back to making America great again.

GONYEA: Still, Budd faces tough competition for the nomination from a fixture in state politics - Pat McCrory, who was a popular mayor of Charlotte for 14 years and then governor for a single term before losing very narrowly in 2016, a loss that prompted Trump to label him a loser. McCrory, despite that long resume, says he's the outsider in this race.

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PAT MCCRORY: You know, I built my career outside of Washington. As a mayor and governor, I took on the tough fights, and the liberals attacked me for it.

GONYEA: The rest of the field includes former congressman and Baptist minister Mark Walker. He's been reaching out to socially conservative Black voters who might typically back a Democrat. Walker's campaign materials show him outside the old Woolworth store in Greensboro, the scene of a landmark 1960 civil rights sit-in.

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MARK WALKER: We're trying to show that you do not have to be one-dimensional. You can be a strong conservative, but you also can find a way to share your heart in a manner that attracts people to what we believe as opposed to repels them.

GONYEA: So far, campaigning hasn't really heated up. The TV ad blitz has not begun. The only prominent ads so far are from an outside group, the Conservative Club for Growth, which is backing Budd and attacking McCrory. Right now, it's all about raising cash. Budd and McCrory have a big advantage there. Political scientist Susan Roberts at Davidson College has her eye on who might show up on a primary day in early March.

SUSAN ROBERTS: A person that votes in the primary is different from a general election voter.

GONYEA: She notes that primary voters tend to be older, wealthier and better-educated than the average voter. Those are not the demographics of the typical Trump voter. So, Roberts says, it's not clear at all what the electorate will look like.

ROBERTS: You know, it's not the Super Bowl of elections. And so they're not necessarily going to turn out. So you have the combination of the primary voter profile plus a primary voter in an off-year election. So those factors could make for an interesting mix.

GONYEA: Still, the Trump endorsement of Congressman Budd is the big event of the race so far. But Dallas Woodhouse, a longtime North Carolina GOP strategist and a political analyst for the Carolina Journal, says don't believe anybody who tells you they know how the Trump endorsement will play between Budd and McCrory.

DALLAS WOODHOUSE: This is a situation where he would be elevating a candidate who's not very well-known and trying to overtake one that is extremely well-known. And I don't know how that'll work. I don't think that Mr. Budd can win, and he won't win on a Trump endorsement alone. I mean, he has to create his own identity.

GONYEA: The GOP winner in March will then face the winner of the Senate Democratic primary. An open seat for an evenly divided Senate means North Carolina will remain in the spotlight for 2022.

Don Gonyea, NPR News.

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