Former Gov. Pat McCrory launches North Carolina Senate run, kicks off competitive GOP primary

Former Rep. Mark Walker already in the race for nomination

Former North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory announced Wednesday that he is running for Senate.  (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former North Carolina GOP Gov. Pat McCrory announced Wednesday that he is running for Senate. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted April 14, 2021 at 9:27am

Former North Carolina Gov. Pat McCrory announced Wednesday that he’s running for the state’s open Senate seat, kicking off a competitive Republican primary in the perennial battleground state. 

“I am simply the best for this job, of any of the people talking about running for it,” McCrory said on his morning radio show. “And I think I have the best chance of winning the general election.”

McCrory also released an announcement video, in which he referenced the seat’s critical role in the battle for the Senate.

“The U.S. Senate is split right down the middle — 50 Republicans, 50 Democrats. And that puts Vice President Kamala Harris in charge, giving the left everything they want to radically change America for generations to come,” he said. “Changing Washington begins right here in North Carolina.”

McCrory’s entry ensures there will be competitive battles on both sides in the race to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard M. Burr. Former Rep. Mark Walker has had the GOP primary to himself since launching his campaign back in December, but McCrory’s team is already touting the former governor’s high name identification in the Tar Heel State. 

McCrory starts the race with 89 percent of likely Republican voters recognizing his name, with a 58 percent favorability and 13 percent unfavorability rating, according to a polling memo his campaign released Wednesday. The poll was conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, which was North Carolina GOP Sen. Thom Tillis’ pollster in his competitive 2020 reelection race. 

The survey showed McCrory leading in head-to-head matchups with Walker and GOP Rep. Ted Budd, who is considering a Senate run, a Budd spokesperson confirmed Tuesday. In the three-way matchup, 48 percent of respondents supported McCrory, 13 percent backed Walker and 9 percent supported Budd. If no candidate wins 30 percent of the primary vote, the race would head to a runoff.

The poll did not include Lara Trump, former President Donald Trump’s daughter-in-law, who is reportedly weighing a run. It surveyed 500 likely Republican primary voters from April 6-8 via telephone and using a recorded voice and had a margin of error of 4.4 points.

McCrory, the former mayor of Charlotte, ran unsuccessfully for governor in 2008, but won on his second attempt, in 2012. He lost a bid for reelection in 2016 to current Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper.

Walker referenced McCrory’s 2008 and 2016 losses in a scathing statement issued Monday, previewing some attacks against the former governor. 

“With taking back the Senate majority hinging on our success in North Carolina, why would we gamble on Pat McCrory — a career politician who has lost more statewide races than he’s won?” he said.

Walker also referenced Trump’s transition team vetting McCrory for a post in the administration but reportedly deciding against him due to a number of “red flags,” according to vetting documents leaked to Axios. Those red flags included McCrory’s criticisms of Trump’s language, his work for Duke Energy, signing a controversial bill banning transgender people from using bathrooms that match their gender identities, and taking a month to concede his 2016 race.

“McCrory has routinely attacked conservatives including President Trump and if Pat wasn’t good enough for Trump’s administration, he’s not good enough for our state,” Walker said. 

Democrats’ echoed Walker's attacks against the former governor.

“Pat McCrory is a desperate loser and career politician who was voted out of office after he embarrassed North Carolina on the national stage while costing the state thousands of jobs and then couldn’t even get hired by the Trump administration,” Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee spokesperson Stewart Boss said in a statement Wednesday. 

North Carolina is a top target for Democrats, who are looking to expand their razor-thin majority in the Senate. Republicans need a net gain of just one seat in 2022 to win control of the chamber, and North Carolina is one of eight states that Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates as a Senate battleground

The Tar Heel State race is also expected to be expensive, thanks to its seven media markets. Aside from Georgia, which hosted two Senate runoff elections that determined chamber control, the 2020 North Carolina Senate race was the most expensive of the cycle, attracting $222 million in outside spending, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. 

Trump carried the state by just 1 point in 2020, while Tillis also narrowly won a second term, defeating Democrat Cal Cunningham by 2 points.

Democrats are also expected to have a competitive primary. Former state Sen. Erica Smith, who lost to Cunningham in the 2020 Senate primary, is running again. Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton, a retired Air Force colonel, and state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a captain in the Army National Guard who served in Afghanistan, are also in the race. And more candidates could jump in. Former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and Joan Higginbotham, a retired astronaut, are both reportedly weighing runs.