Donald Trump brokered a deal this weekend to clear the North Carolina GOP Senate field for Rep. Ted Budd, the candidate he endorsed in June but who has failed to emerge so far as the clear frontrunner.
During a meeting at Mar-a-Lago on Saturday, Trump pledged to endorse former GOP Rep. Mark Walker, who is currently in third place in the Senate primary, if Walker leaves the race and runs again for the House instead, according to multiple sources present at the gathering.
“Trump offered Walker the endorsement, and it’s expected to get rolled out this week,” said Jack Minor, Walker’s former chief of staff.
Walker, who was rumored for weeks to be considering a House run, has not formally announced his plans to drop out of the Senate race. Candidate filing in North Carolina begins at noon Monday.
Despite the former president’s endorsement and the multimillion-dollar backing from Club for Growth’s super PAC, Budd has failed to surpass former Gov. Pat McCrory, who is also seeking the Republican nomination for Senate. Walker for months has trailed both Budd and McCrory in polling and fundraising.
The new 7th District congressional seat that Walker would run for resembles the district Walker represented from 2015 through 2020. Budd currently represents much of that area in Congress.
Both Budd and Walker are campaigning as Trump loyalists, in contrast with McCrory, a Republican with more appeal to moderates.
As part of the deal brokered during the Saturday meeting — which was also attended by Republican congressional candidate Bo Hines, Rep. Madison Cawthorn (R-N.C.) and Club for Growth President David McIntosh — Hines will receive Trump’s endorsement to run in the 4th Congressional District, Minor confirmed.
Until recently, Hines has campaigned as a candidate in the 7th District. Trump’s maneuvering moves him out of that race and into the 4th District contest, thus clearing room for Walker to run in the 7th.
A primary match-up between Hines and Walker could also have become messy, potentially resulting in Cawthorn and other members of the House Freedom Caucus endorsing Hines over Walker, a former Republican Study Committee chair.
A spokesperson for Hines said the campaign would not comment on the matter until Monday.
The new arrangement amounts to a truce between several key conservatives in North Carolina — and settles a game of Republican musical chairs that has been underway in the state.
Walker, a former pastor who has actively courted the evangelical Christian vote, has bashed Budd for his reliance on Club for Growth funding. The group’s super PAC is spending $10 million to support Budd in the race.
“President Trump deserves a lot of credit for bringing together North Carolina conservatives and proposing a path that truly benefits the voters,” McIntosh said in a statement Sunday, when asked about his attendance at the Mar-a-Lago meeting.
Spokespeople for Trump and Budd did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
The parties involved in the meeting offered conflicting accounts of who was the driving force behind it. Some said it was McIntosh, while others pointing to Cawthorn, who passed out fliers bearing the title “Congressman Cawthorn’s plan for North Carolina” — a map that showed Walker running in the 7th District and Hines in the 4th District.
Multiple sources said McIntosh played a significant role in putting the plan together, including one who said McIntosh offered “encouragement” for Hines to agree to switch races and run in the 4th District, where Hines currently resides. Walker previously represented more than two-thirds of what will now become the 7th District.
Cawthorn won his seat as a first-time, 24-year-old candidate in 2020 against a Trump-endorsed candidate. But he received Trump’s “total endorsement” this spring, with the former president announcing he would support Cawthorn in the future in “whatever he wants to do.”
A spokesperson for McCrory’s campaign pushed back on the notion that Budd will benefit from Walker leaving the Senate race.
“Our polls show that Gov. McCrory’s large lead expands in this scenario,” said Jordan Shaw, an adviser to McCrory’s campaign. “That’s because Walker’s supporters want someone who isn’t bought, paid for, wholly owned and operated by a D.C. special interest group. That obviously eliminates Congressman Budd and benefits Gov. McCrory.”
A McCrory internal polling memo from October showed McCrory ahead by 15 percentage points in the three-way race. Shaw said the poll found his lead grew by another point in a head-to-head matchup with Budd.
A survey commissioned by the Club for Growth last month, meanwhile, had McCrory up by just three points.