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Trump-backed Ted Budd wins GOP Senate primary in North Carolina, NBC News projects

His victory sets up a fall battle with Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd won North Carolina’s Republican Senate primary Tuesday, defeating former Gov. Pat McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, NBC News projected.

Just after 9:45 p.m. ET, Budd led McCrory by more than 30 points. His victory sets up a fall battle with Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. 

Speaking after his victory, Budd said Republicans "need to pull together and look to the real race in November" against Beasley, whom he tied closely to President Joe Biden.

"If we send her to Washington, she will enable every element of Joe Biden’s agenda," he said.

McCrory congratulated Budd in his concession speech.

"Tonight, we lost fair and square," McCrory said. "That’s part of what our great democracy is all about."

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee was quick to take aim at Budd in a statement, calling him "a D.C. insider with no accomplishments for his state."

Budd had been locked in a tight race with McCrory for months, but he was able to turn the race into less of nail-biter with just weeks to go thanks mostly to two friends who recently became enemies — former President Donald Trump and the Club for Growth, a conservative economics group spending millions in Republican primaries.

Trump and the Club for Growth both announced their support for Budd last year. In fact, Budd was one of Trump’s earliest endorsements of the entire cycle. But Budd did not start building a lead in the polls until the final weeks of the race.

Image: NC GOP Candidate For Senate Ted Budd Holds Election Night Party
Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., a candidate for the Senate, celebrates his Republican nomination with his family at a primary election night watch party Tuesday in Bermuda Run.Melissa Sue Gerrits / Getty Images

His surge began near Trump’s April rally and as the Club for Growth ratcheted up its anti-McCrory spending.

Through its Club for Growth Action Super PAC, the Club for Growth spent more than $11.2 million on ads backing Budd through last week, according to the ad tracking company AdImpact. No other candidate or group came close to matching the Club for Growth’s spending, as Budd, McCrory and Walker spent about $3 million among them on ads through last week, according to AdImpact.

Carter Wren, a North Carolina GOP strategist, said the Club for Growth’s massive spending helped lock up a victory for Budd.

“I think it’s all about money,” he said, adding: “That sounds too simple to be true. But, you know, you’re talking about a statewide race where you’ve got to talk to a million primary voters.”

McCrory, who was once the mayor of Charlotte, gained national notoriety in 2016 when he signed North Carolina’s “bathroom bill,” which mandated that people use bathrooms in public facilities that complied with their genders assigned at birth. The state faced immense backlash from businesses, which pulled investments and events out of North Carolina in response.

The backlash contributed to his slim defeat in his re-election campaign against Democrat Roy Cooper, the current governor, and parts of the law were subsequently repealed.

Budd had a lower profile entering the race. A member of the House Freedom Caucus, he objected to the 2020 presidential election results after a pro-Trump mob ransacked the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021. In early March, as the war in Ukraine raged, McCrory accused Budd of casting votes “friendly” to Russia.

That month, the Budd campaign’s internal polling showed McCrory with a 6-point lead. The race soon took a turn. From April on, surveys showed Budd with leads of more than 24 and 27 points.

"That’s a big lead,” Trump said at a rally for Budd last month. “I saw one where he is 10 points, one where he’s 12 points and one where he’s 17 points up over the bathroom governor. You know the bathroom governor. Remember the bathroom governor? What a mess that was.”

A Meredith College survey this month suggested Budd had a slimmer 7-point edge and showed him running strongest “with the most conservative Republican voters,” while McCrory held an edge with self-identified moderate and urban Republicans.

Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser for the Budd campaign, said Trump’s endorsement helped initially with fundraising and grassroots activists who were asking to help. But last month’s rally “was when the dam broke.”

“Anyone who had been kind of playing coy, kind of sitting on the sidelines, it was, like, time to get off the sidelines to kind of pick a side,” he said.

But just as Trump and the Club for Growth seemed to shore up Budd’s support, their relationship with each other soured because the group continued to back Josh Mandel in Ohio’s GOP Senate primary after Trump announced his support for the eventual winner, J.D. Vance. Since then, the Club for Growth has announced it was backing Kathy Barnette in Pennsylvania’s Senate primary — a direct rebuke of Trump’s pick, Mehmet Oz.

Jordan Shaw, a McCrory adviser, said “no one” expected an outside group to spend as much on the primary as Club for Growth Action, which pummeled McCrory with ads claiming he was a liberal Republican in Name Only, or RINO, and a supporter of so-called sanctuary cities.

Shaw took particular issue with the sanctuary cities ad, which he deemed “a total lie,” pointing to McCrory’s having signed a bill prohibiting cities and counties from enacting sanctuary policies.

“When you have a group who has unlimited resources and is unencumbered by the bonds of truth, that can have a pretty powerful impact on a race,” Shaw said, adding: “They spend more than everybody else combined. And they have no problem lying to Republican voters to achieve their ends.”

David McIntosh, the president of the Club for Growth, who declined an earlier interview through a spokesperson, said in a statement that “North Carolina primary voters want a principled conservative like Ted Budd as opposed to a failed RINO like Pat McCrory.”

In a statement after Budd's win, McIntosh said the group was "proud to have played a role in helping Rep. Ted Budd secure the nomination."

Michele Woodhouse, a former GOP district chairwoman who ran in the primary against Rep. Madison Cawthorn, R-N.C., said another big turning point for Budd was winning Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s endorsement. Robinson is “incredibly popular” with grassroots conservatives in the state, she said.

“What has changed in the course of the last few weeks was that President Trump came into town,” she said. “And Lieutenant Governor Mark Robinson got up on the stage and endorsed Ted.”