After months of sustained body blows from millions of dollars in negative ads from the Ted Budd-supporting Club for Growth, former Gov. Pat McCrory began punching back hard Thursday. He’s trying to land a knockout punch on Congressman Budd based on his statement and votes concerning Russia and Vladimir Putin.

“As Ukrainians bled and died,” McCrory says in the statewide television advertisement, “Congressman Budd excused their killer.”

The ad then uses Budd’s own words from a previous television interview describing Putin as a “very intelligent actor” who had “strategic reasons” for invading Ukraine, including a desire to “protect his southern flank.”

Budd stated in an interview with CBS-17 that he thinks Putin is “evil” but that it “doesn’t mean he’s not smart.”

“I would say he’s been quite erratic in this approach to the Ukraine,” Budd said. “So this is very different than the Putin we’ve seen over the past several decades.”

Budd also said the U.S. must support Ukraine and labeled  Putin an “international thug.”

“But he is intelligent,” Budd stated, “so we have to treat him as such.”

Jonathan Felts, senior adviser for Budd’s Senate campaign, responded to the ad.

“Governor McCrory has a long track record of underestimating the opposition, which is why he’s already lost twice and is about to lose again,” Felts told Carolina Journal. “Ted Budd presented the sort of level-headed assessment of a foreign crisis you would expect from a U.S. senator because he knows these are serious times that require strength and substance, not the empty soundbites preferred by career politicians like Biden and McCrory.”

The attack of Budd’s approach to Russia is McCrory’s first television spot in the Senate campaign. It appears to be the first campaign ad this cycle in American politics focused on the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Felts told the AP Budd “accurately described Putin as an evil, intelligent threat to be taken seriously” and called McCrory a “desperate candidate flailing about.”

McCrory lost his bids for governor in 2008 and 2016. He won in 2012.

The ad highlights Budd’s voting on Russia. The McCrory campaign cites two missed votes by Budd and two others the McCrory campaign labels as pro-Russia and pro-Putin.

“Ted Budd’s pro-Russia voting record and public statements are not only deeply at odds with North Carolina general election voters but also core-based GOP primary voters,” said McCrory campaign consultant Paul Shumaker. “The ad shows a stark difference between a candidate who can win a tough general election in North Carolina, Pat McCrory, and a candidate, Ted Budd, who will see his support vanish from both Republicans and Independents with whom this issue will resonate.”

On Feb. 23 Budd was in the audience as former President Donald Trump praised Putin as “very smart,” and Budd never appeared to distance himself from Trump’s comments.

In interviews in late February, Budd recognized the “strategic reasons why he [Putin] would want to protect his southern and western flank because of the flatlands of Russia, we understand that,”  and at his candidate filing Budd called Putin ‘“very intelligent.”

Budd’s comments drew criticism from Republican leaders and media outlets. Editorials in the Salisbury Post, Greensboro News & Record, and Raleigh/Charlotte Observer were highly critical of his comments, while U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis, who has remained strictly neutral in the Senate primary, called out Budd for comments praising Putin.

This week a Politico news article with the headline “Trump’s man in North Carolina struggles in Senate primary” claimed that Budd is “struggling to gain traction, raising concerns among his powerful backers about his prospects in a race that is key to control of the Senate.”

McCrory, Budd, and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker are the top three names in the 14-person GOP primary field.

In a memo, Shumaker claims a cluttered ballot is also an advantage to the former governor, who polls with near-universal name recognition among GOP voters.

“With 14 candidates on the Republican ballot, McCrory is the only candidate suited to win the primary election outright, especially given that only a 30% threshold is needed to avoid a runoff election. Governor McCrory has consistently polled at or above that threshold, while Ted Budd has failed to gain traction despite over $10 million in D.C. special interest spending on his behalf,” wrote Shumaker.

McCrory still faces upcoming negative attacks from the Club for Growth, which has reserved millions of dollars in ad time and recently said it would spend “what it takes to win.”

Recent ads attack McCrory for criticizing some of Trump’s behavior on his Charlotte-based radio program after he narrowly lost re-election in 2016.  The ads highlight cordial comments by McCrory directed at President Obama, Vice President Biden, and 2012 GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who appeared on the ballot with McCrory.

The McCrory television ad, along with the McCrory campaign narrative that this issue makes Budd unelectable, is a message not only targeted to N.C. primary voters. It is targeted to conservative donors across the country in an effort to increase donations to the McCrory campaign and possibly attract independent expenditures intended to boost McCrory because those donors become concerned Budd could lose in the fall despite an expected strong GOP year.

“North Carolina is no longer the traditional red state of the past,” writes Shumaker. “In 2020, North Carolina was decided by less than 100,000 votes after being the most expensive U.S. Senate race in the nation. Georgia was at the time a sleeper race that no one was watching. If anyone thinks that North Carolina is a lock with any Republican nominee, they are wrong. There is a good chance that North Carolina will become the next Georgia to fall into Democratic hands.”

North Carolina is the “swingiest” of all swing states, and Ted Budd’s sympathy for Russia and Putin is a position that Democrats will look to exploit with soft-Republican voters and independents in the suburbs, he added.