Whatever else he plans to do between now and the 2024 presidential election, Donald Trump is unlikely to go away. Politico reported yesterday that Trump is building a campaign infrastructure and that most of his advisers believe another campaign for the White House is fait accompli. Naturally, observers in our swing state will be curious about how the Orange Autocrat plans to interact with North Carolina politics in the interval between this early date and what will be a tough fight to keep the Tar Heel state in the red column. It starts, of course, with the Senate.

Trump chose North Carolina–specifically, the friendly environs of Eastern N.C.–as the site of his first public address since the January 6 insurrection. The speech did not disappoint: he announced a surprise endorsement of Congressman Ted Budd for United States Senate. The endorsement left #ncpol reeling, as all three major candidates in the race had catered to Trump and an early backing from the old autocrat seemed to rocket Budd into first place. After all, Trump commands intense loyalty from nearly all Republican primary voters.

Then, one surprise was compounded with another. The quarter-two fundraising reports from North Carolina Senate candidates revealed that Trump’s imprimatur had not led to the expected avalanche of small-dollar donations to Budd. Budd raised on $700,000 to Pat McCrory’s $1,2 million. Possibly Budd’s underperformance reflected the premature timing of Trump’s endorsement. Not enough Republican voters are paying attention to a race that would, after all, take place a full year from the endorsement. Still, McCrory’s lead in the money chase showed signs of life for his campaign, which many observers had pronounced dead in the water.

There’s a wrinkle, however. For all Budd’s mediocrity on the front of personal fundraising, he has a huge cash infusion waiting for him. The Club For Growth has promised to spend $5 million on his behalf before the primary is out–and they’ve already opened their wallets. Club advertisements linking Pat McCrory to the hated Chinese menace are already playing in select media markets across the state. If the Club maintains its staunch pro-Trump positioning, the Trump endorsement could echo throughout the primary season. And a Budd internal poll already showed that when voters learn of Trump’s support for the candidate, Budd takes the lead.

In the final analysis, a heavy Trump influence seems like a good bet if the former president wants to be a factor. No politician in American history has been better at commanding attention than Donald Trump. And the ardor for the autocrat is as strong as ever. The default operating principle of every Republican campaign is to attach the candidate to Trump like Gorilla Glue. That said, Pat McCrory could prove the strongest Trumpers wrong. It’s going to be a tight race–and perhaps a damaging one for a party that must compete in this incredibly polarized state.

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