Over the past couple of weeks, North Carolina politicos have focused intently on the outcome of the state’s latest redistricting saga. After the GOP-majority General Assembly saw its original set of electoral districts thrown out by the courts, lawmakers tried again. Their new legislative maps were accepted. A three-judge panel rejected the Republicans’ newly crafted congressional districts, however, and enacted a “remedial” map for the 2022 cycle.
As all this was going on, however, average North Carolinians were paying closer attention to events unfolding thousands of miles away.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a tragedy, an outrage, and a wake-up call about the continued threat to liberty and order posed by dictators pursuing 19th-century aims with 21st-century arms. Here in North Carolina, it also represents a potential inflection point in our midterm elections.
This became clear on February 26 when three Republican candidates — former Gov. Pat McCrory, former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, and Marjorie Eastman, an Army veteran and businesswoman — faced off in the first televised debate of the U.S. Senate primary. Held at the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Liberty Conference in Raleigh, the debate made statewide headlines not only because of what the participants said but also because of the identity of their frequent target, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd.
He wasn’t there. He declined the invitation, saying he wouldn’t agree even to discuss a GOP debate until the candidate-filing period closed. Event organizers put a lectern on the stage to underline his absence.
With the Russian invasion occurring in real time, Budd’s decision not to participate proved costly. The congressman is vulnerable on the issue. In the past, he sometimes voted against bills to sanction Russia for its conduct in Ukraine. More recently, Budd was in the audience when former President Donald Trump, who endorsed Budd, called Vladimir Putin “pretty smart” for launching his current invasion of Russia’s southern neighbor.
The day before the Senate debate, McCrory formally filed for the office and told reporters that Budd had been “defending Russia and defending Putin when it’s indefensible.” During the debate, McCrory and the other participants doubled down on the subject. Eastman called the dictator a “thug” and his invasion “unprovoked and unjustified.” Walker argued that the U.S. and its allies ought to “go after Putin directly.”
Asked later to respond, Budd told CBS-17 that Putin was “evil” and “an international thug” but also that he was “intelligent” so “we have to treat him as such.” Not surprisingly, both the McCrory campaign and the Democratic Party spent the next 24 hours making hay of Budd’s foolish choice of words. He’d been better off showing up for the debate and defending his record, which is actually more mixed on Russia than his critics suggest.
The Senate primary isn’t the only race where the issue is likely to bite. Last week, GOP congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene spoke to a white-nationalist organization in Orlando where the organizer asked the audience to “give a round of applause for Russia” and got chants of “Putin! Putin!” in response. Greene tried to pretend later she didn’t know what she’d gotten herself into, but no one believed her. Some GOP candidates here in North Carolina have sought her endorsement or been on stage with her. You’re going to hear a lot more about that in the coming weeks.
On the Democratic side, President Biden’s disastrous first year in office has set up his party for a disastrous midterm election. Now Democrats are hoping his efforts to organize an anti-Putin coalition will not only get results in Ukraine but also bring voters around to the Democratic ticket.
North Carolinians do care. In a pre-invasion High Point University poll, 47% said Russia’s military build-up on the Ukraine border was a “major threat” to U.S. interests, with another 27% calling it a “minor threat.”
Most voters don’t favor direct American military invention, of course, which isn’t in the cards anyway. They do favor tough talk and tougher sanctions. And they’re right.
John Hood is a Carolina Journal columnist and author of the new novel Mountain Folk, a historical fantasy set during the American Revolution.