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HIGH POINT, N.C. (WGHP) — They’ve had their last public conversation. Now it’s time for the public’s say so.

Former Gov. Pat McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker returned to the area they both have called home and had a final public debate in their race for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate. Early in-person voting gets underway on Thursday, leading up to the Primary Election on May 17.

Both men want the job being left behind by Richard Burr of Winston-Salem — as do a dozen other Republicans, 11 Democrats and a Libertarian — who is retiring after three terms in the Senate. The GOP sees retaining this seat as an imperative if it is to have a chance to reclaim control of the Senate from the Democrats’ 1-vote margin.

This was the fourth debate between McCrory, slightly more moderate, and Walker, a 3-term congressman who headed a conservative caucus. Newcomer Marjorie Eastman, an author and military veteran from Cary, has joined them on stage a couple of times.

But for the fourth consecutive time, front-runner Rep. Ted Budd declined an invitation to participate. His spokesman, Jonathan Felts, said in an email that “Ted Budd is focused on finishing his 100 county tour of NC before the Primary so he can speak directly to voters in all 100 counties and ask for their votes.”

But although Budd (R-Advance) was out of the room, he was far from out of the conversation as both McCrory and Walker hammered him for his absence, for what they said was his lack of courage and for feeling “entitled but not qualified” to be a senator.

McCrory and Walker were chosen to participate based on the WGHP/The Hill/Emerson College Poll that showed Budd with a 38% of the support from likely Republican voters, followed by former Gov. McCrory (22%) and former Rep. Walker (9%). Eastman drew only 1.5% in the poll and did not meet the threshold to qualify.

McCrory, who grew up in Jamestown, was the youngest person elected mayor of Charlotte and in 2012 was elected governor. But he had some rough spots during his first term and lost re-election narrowly to Roy Cooper in 2016. Cooper was re-elected in 2020. He has had a radio show since and flirted with appointments.

Walker, a resident of Greensboro, was a Baptist minister for 16 years before deciding to enter politics in 2014, upsetting Phil Berger Jr. in a runoff for the Republican nomination to replace legendary Howard Coble in the 6th Congressional District. He won re-election in 2016 and 2018 but, after a court-ordered redraw made his district less favorable for Republicans, he decided to focus on replacing Burr.

Some agreement

Both men were asked hard questions by the event’s moderators, WGHP’s Bob Buckley and WNCN’s Rod Carter, about difficult subjects, such as immigration, COVID-19, the war in Ukraine, the role of the federal government in schools. They provided answers that touted their respective records and attacked Budd for his lack of one. They agreed sometimes, and their variances were small.

For instance, both men said that mask mandates — or any COVID-19-related mandates — need to end. McCrory called the response to the pandemic government overreach. Walker said the pandemic showed “how much freedom Americans were willing to give up,” which he implied was a government experiment. They said the CDC had lost the trust of the American people and needed a more consistent message to get it back. Walker even called for Dr. Anthony Fauci to be fired.

But when they were asked what they would do immediately to deal with the highest rate of inflation in decades, they didn’t really answer. They discussed what they saw as the causes — government subsidies that motivated people to stay home and not work, the high government spending that is driving up the deficit, saying no way student loans should be forgiven — driving home their points, but they didn’t provide solutions.

Both talked about spending plans and fiscal responsibility and COVID-19 funds being used by local governments “as paybacks,” as McCrory said. They offered no answer, though, about how to help families.

McCrory: “One reason Ted Budd can’t defend himself: He pushed paying people not to go back to work.”

Walker on paying people for not working: “It’s a travesty.”

About Ukraine

But both were fervent in their support for Ukraine and its fight against the invasion orchestrated by Russian Premier Vladimir Putin. They challenged Budd (and Rep Madison Cawthorn and President Joe Biden) about their comments that didn’t staunchly decry Putin. They praised President Zelenskyy and his leadership. They agreed that this is a war that has to be won and that the U.S. should send all the lethal weapons possible.

But they also stopped short of advocating for U.S. troops on the ground. They said we shouldn’t be listening to politicians but the military leaders. They said that we should do everything we can to help the refugees fleeing the war.

They didn’t like the uneven messaging from the Biden administration, and they were uniformly stalwart in saying we had to support our NATO allies — something former President Donald Trump didn’t advocate — and said that could be a trigger for sending troops to fight. They also said we would have to stop nuclear or other weapons of mass destruction.

About Trump and Budd

Speaking of Trump, Buckley and Carter drilled both men about his endorsement of Budd that is presumed to have pushed Budd into his lead and about what level of reach Trump should have in the future of the Republican Party. The WGHP/The Hill/Emerson College Polling survey showed that about 6 in 10 likely voters said Trump’s endorsement was important.

“I met with President Trump, and he promised his full support in whatever election I would have,” Walker said. “But this [his choosing Budd] was an example of endorsements and backroom deals in Washington. North Carolina doesn’t want to be told what to do.”

Said McCrory: “Let those voters know that Ted Budd is a poster boy for everything wrong with Washington, D.C. Bought and paid for by a third-party group that has paid $14 million on deceitful ads about Mark and myself.”

As an example, they talked about how Budd had voted against the farm bill that would have supported North Carolina’s agriculture industry. “He’s not for the farmers. He’s not for you,” McCrory said. “If he were for you, he would here be right now. He’s acting like he’s entitled.”

Said Walker: “Club for Growth [the super PAC that supports Budd] said [for him to] vote against farm bill. I wasn’t going to vote against it. Mr. Budd had to vote against it because the president of Club for Growth called him.”

When it comes to the future of the party, though, McCrory said he thinks “we have some future leaders who are governors.”

Walker said he would “support whoever wins this Senate race. … I worked with Trump. Could I push back on tweets and language and behavior, I have. But we have to stop this radical, left-wing, woke ideology that is teaching children to hate America.

“Trump is influential. He can bring much good. … There is much to applaud about President Trump.”

Said McCrory: “I think it’s time for Republicans, Democrats and independents to own the truth. Biden’s policies are ruining America. Trump’s policies were good. He went too far on spending. … But we’ve got to call out Democrats for violence in cities and support our police, call out Republicans who attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6.”

On other issues

Both men support enforcing immigration laws and were firm that DACA immigrants should be handled strictly and given no free pass to citizenship until other issues are addressed. They said this was the president’s problem to solve.

McCrory talked about Budd’s commercial standing in front of the wall on the Southern border: “Budd was looking all tough … almost like a Saturday Night Live skit. He voted against building the wall.”

McCrory: “Until we secure the wall and our border, no compromise in how we handle children”

Walker: “We have to be sovereign.”

Fast topics:

  • Walker cited his work on Name Image Likeness deals that helped college athletes and his work with historically black colleges and universities such as NC A&T as two examples of how he could work with a Democratic ideas. McCrory touted the bond issue he pushed through to grow critical math and science facilities at universities around the state.
  • Both men supported the idea of medical marijuana, although Walker was more hesitant. They were uniformly against recreational marijuana. Walker said that very term bothered him.
  • McCrory said he thought legalized sports gambling essentially is here. Walker said he was against anything that can cause addiction.
  • Asked about eastern NC barbecue vs. Lexington style, both men said they liked both but had their personal peccadilloes (McCrory favored ketchup, and Walker admitted an influence from his former residence, Texas).

Final words

And both men in their final remarks, perhaps their final time on a stage this big for their senatorial campaigns, noted what really matters to this race:

McCrory said it was patently “unfair that Ted Budd even would be mentioned,” that it was wrong that he could “avoid facing the voters and accepting questions.”

Walker went back to his ministries and said that, no matter what, “God would get all the glory.”