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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) — With exactly six weeks left before Primary Election day in North Carolina, Rep. Ted Budd has seized firm control in the race for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

A WGHP/The Hill/Emerson College poll, the first non-partisan poll conducted in this race, found that Budd, a resident of Advance who represents the current 13th Congressional District, has the support of 38% of likely voters on May 17 and would be favored in a head-to-head election against likely Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley in November.

Budd’s margin in the Republican primary is a surprising 16 percentage points over former Gov. Pat McCrory (22%) with former Rep. Mark Walker of Greensboro polling third at about 9%. Some 8% preferred one of the other candidates – topped by Marjorie Eastman of Cary and Benjamin Griffiths of Cleveland, with 1.4% – and nearly 1 in 4 (23%) said they are undecided.

The poll focused on the 14 Republicans seeking to succeed retiring Republican Richard Burr of Winston-Salem, and it’s clear that Budd appears to have surpassed the 30%-plus-one threshold required to avoid a run-off election that might have been expected in such a crowded field.

“Ted Budd’s position in the Republican primary is strong,” Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling, said in a Zoom interview. “I was thinking it would be more competitive with McCrory. It’s really down to two candidates.”

The Trump factor

Former President Donald Trump prepares to speak at a rally at the Canyon Moon Ranch festival grounds on January 15, 2022 in Florence, Arizona. (Photo by Mario Tama/Getty Images)

Budd has an aggressive media campaign funded in part by millions of dollars in contributions from Club for Growth, a conservative PAC whose dollars helped him defeat 16 Republicans in his initial bid for Congress in 2016, but he also has benefitted significantly from the endorsement of former President Donald Trump, which apparently is important for voters.

Among Republicans who responded to the poll, 59% said Trump’s backing makes them more likely to vote for a candidate. Only 13% said Trump’s endorsement makes them less likely to vote for his choice, but 27% said it would make no difference.

“At this point, that endorsement carries a lot of weight,” Kimball said. “Of those who say it matters, 43% are breaking for Budd. Those who said [the endorsement makes them] less likely, 58% are breaking for McCrory.”

He also said that 50% of the undecided voters are more likely to vote for Budd because of Trump’s endorsement.

“We’ve seen this in all the states [that Emerson polls],” Kimball said. “Georgia hasn’t come out yet, but it was the only state where his impact was under 50%. The jury is still out to see how impactful endorsement will be when these elections come to fruition.”

Kimball said he was surprised that Eastman, a retired combat veteran in her first campaign who in the fourth quarter of 2021 reported more contributions than did Walker, didn’t fare better.

“She’s not in the top tier. That’s surprising considering the money and her name recognition,” he said. “But there is only so much of a vote to go get. Budd is capturing the conservative vote and McCrory the moderate vote. There’s not much of an electorate for her to pick up.”

Race vs. Beasley

Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley

Because Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, is the almost certain nominee among 11 Democrats now that state Sen. Jeff Jackson is running for Congress, the poll didn’t ask about her competitors.

But in head-to-head races between the Republican candidates and Beasley, it was clear that Budd and Walker would be favored to beat Beasley.

The poll showed that Budd would get 50% of the vote against Beasley with 43% favoring Beasley and 8% undecided. Walker would have a 47%-42% edge with 11% undecided.

Even Eastman would be in a virtual dead heat with each polling at 44% and 12.3% undecided. But Beasley would have a slight edge over McCrory (43% to 41%, with 16% undecided).

“Beasley is in a tough race in North Carolina,” Kimball said. “I don’t think she will be shocked to see where she is right now. Republicans are in a primary. Their message is getting out. She’s not really in a primary.”

He said because a lot of Beasley’s supporters are young voters who are hard to motivate in a midterm election, polls might deter them and hurt her campaign going forward by dimming the excitement about her.

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How this was done

Candidates have touted polls during the past several months that have helped observers to handicap the race, but all of those were internal polls or were conducted by organizations that have an affinity for a certain campaign or cause. The WGHP/The Hill/Emerson College poll sampled 1,047 registered voters in North Carolina for the General Election and 508 for the Republican primary with a credibility interval (which is similar to a margin of error) of +/- 3 percentage points.

This poll, conducted April 2-4, asked a variety of questions about the upcoming elections and the state of the nation, and 77.2% of respondents said they were very likely to vote. They identified themselves as 40.3% Republican, 35.7% Democrat and 24% Unaffiliated.

Respondents were predominately white and at least 50 years old and slightly more female (51%) with 44% having at least a bachelor’s degree and 39% living in the suburbs.