How do you write a profile of a man who wants to be a U.S. senator but doesn’t want to talk to you?
First, you go to his gun store.
During my hour-long drive to ProShots—a gun store and indoor shooting range in Rural Hall, North Carolina, owned by Republican U.S. congressman Ted Budd—I listen to most of the store’s short-lived 2017 podcast, a structureless jabberfest where four employees discuss their vast firearm collections and the limitations of concealed carry permits.
State law prohibits carrying concealed firearms in schools, which is a “sticky wicket” for gun owners with kids, one employee says in the second episode.
“I would be curious to know whether North Carolina defines a daycare as an educational facility,” he says.
In another episode, an employee names his prized possession as a Cz-27 pistol used by a “German officer” in World War II, complete with “all the stamps and markings”; a quick Google search of the model confirms that said “markings” include a swastika.
My ears are pricked for mentions of Budd, a three-term congressman who is running against Democrat Cheri Beasley in the race to replace retiring Republican North Carolina senator Richard Burr, but no one says anything about him—a harbinger for the rest of my reporting.
Backed by former president Donald Trump, Budd secured a hefty 59 percent of the vote in May’s Republican primary for U.S. Senate, indicating that a chunk of North Carolinians still have a soft spot for Trump-era extremism; Budd easily triumphed over the primary’s biggest name and fundraiser, former North Carolina governor Pat McCrory, and his win cast shade on Burr, who voted to convict Trump in the former president’s second impeachment trial.
In the months since the primary, Budd, who has represented a congressional district in central North Carolina since riding in on the Trump wave in 2016, has been neck and neck with his opponent in the polls.
In efforts to broaden this gap and appeal to a wider base, the congressman has tried to distance himself from Trump and dilute his populist messaging. His ads, which previously touted Trump’s endorsement and labeled immigrants as criminals and drug smugglers, now show him sandwiched between grocery store carts, vowing to fight inflation. His website paints him as a North Carolina–born, farm-raised, Eagle Scout–badged small business owner who loves God and hates Joe Biden.
“I pledge to you that I will work for everyday families, not the elite or political insiders,” his site reads.
But the receipts tell a different story.
In July, a day after accepting the maximum campaign contribution from big oil PAC Continental Resources, Inc., Budd voted against legislation that would lower gas prices and protect consumers from price gouging by big oil companies. Similarly, in 2019 Budd voted against lowering consumer drug prices just days after taking thousands of dollars from two Big Pharma PACs. In perhaps the most glaring display of corruption, Budd has voted in support of corporate special interests after taking $30,000 worth of trips on their dime, traveling to places like Miami, Palm Beach, and Oslo, Norway, and staying in $900-a-night luxury resorts.
Budd’s critics accuse him of being a hypocrite. He promotes himself as an ally to farmers but made millions off a family business scheme that bankrupted the company AgriBioTech and cost farmers $50 million in losses. He says he supports service members but has voted against expanding healthcare for veterans. Despite demanding that Gov. Roy Cooper do more to explain how “those in positions of power in North Carolina are acting proactively to protect children,” Budd has passed up opportunities to address child abuse time and again, voting against bills that would have provided a composite $890 million in funding for child abuse prevention services.
And for all his efforts to come off as a Constitution-abiding everyman, Budd has refused to say whether he accepts the results of the 2020 presidential election, called the January 6 insurrection “just patriots standing up,” and recently cosponsored a bill that would impose a national ban on abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
When I pull up to ProShots, I notice the similarities between the store and its owner: like Budd, ProShots is clinical and unassuming, a multimillion-dollar operation doing its best to blend in with a Family Dollar and a tractor supply store.
Besides a large sign that says “Helping Our Community Responsibly Enjoy Firearms,” the store’s walls are mostly adorned with shotguns, assault rifles, and accessories like noise-canceling earmuffs for babies and kids. I don’t know anything about guns, so I ask a salesman named Gabriel to confirm that the weapons I see are indeed assault rifles.
“They’re totally new,” he says. “They never assaulted anybody.”
Between March 2018 and August 2020, multiple firearms, ammunition, and gun accessories were stolen from ProShots, and in January 2019, a man died by suicide while using the store’s indoor range. I ask Gabriel whether the store has revamped its security system since these incidents.
“We put all the ammo back here,” he says, gesturing behind the register. Brightly colored boxes of bullets are stacked in neat rows, like candy at a movie theater. “That makes it so we have to get it for customers. And [we’ve added] more security.”
When I ask him what Budd is like, he says he can’t comment and darts off. Another employee tells me that the store’s “media guy” has instructed workers not to talk about Budd with reporters.
Budd and his campaign did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this story, and nearly all of my other attempts to interview folks who know Budd—fellow congress members, mostly—also fall flat, though I am able to reach Chris Beckman, a former ProShots marketing manager, over the phone.
“Working for Ted was actually a lot of fun,” says Beckman, who worked at ProShots between 2015 and 2018 and went to the same church as Budd for a number of years.
As a gun store owner, Budd emphasized education and safety and was receptive to his employees’ feedback, according to Beckman. (On the topic of safety, it’s worth noting that the ProShots website advertises an insurance provider that supports gun owners facing domestic violence charges.)
“He kind of surprised us when he ran for Congress,” Beckman says. “But it was great …. He saw a really great opportunity to do something beyond what he was doing, and I believe he had the right mind-set for it at the time.”
But Beckman—the one person I reached who knows Budd personally—isn’t sure whether he’s voting for him in November. He hasn’t spent time reviewing Budd’s stances on “a few key issues” that would impact his family, he says, but wouldn’t elaborate further.
According to Carter Wrenn, a longtime Republican political strategist in North Carolina, the majority of voters will be thinking about national issues—primarily abortion and inflation—when they cast their Senate ballots this fall, not the character of the candidates.
“This election is going to be decided by national trends,” Wrenn says. “The candidates are not going to break through all of a sudden and make people say, ‘Yes, that’s the kind of leadership we need,’ based on their character.”
This, plus the fact that North Carolina usually elects Republican senators—and the historical pattern of the president’s party losing ground in midterm elections—means that Budd doesn’t need to worry too much about humanizing himself, says Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic political strategist in North Carolina.
“That is the Republican strategy,” Pearce says. “They don’t want to make public appearances. They don’t want [the media] to cover them. They want to do it all under the surface.”
While Budd has hosted a handful of meet-and-greets, they’ve been few and far between—and because his campaign won’t add me to their press list, I haven’t known where to show up.
So when he finally makes a well-publicized appearance—at a Trump rally, no less—you can be sure I don’t miss it.
It’s a warm September morning and Cheri Beasley is perched on a picnic table bench at Durham’s largest open-air produce market, seated within arm’s reach of nearly every farmer who showed up to her agriculture-centered roundtable event.
Dressed in an all-denim outfit and sporting a dainty gold necklace that says “Protect Roe,” Beasley hasn’t said a word in 40 minutes, allowing as much time as possible for attendees to share their stories and struggles.
The farmers are diverse, with operations that range from tobacco fields to modular containers of microgreens, but they share many of the same stressors: rising fuel and fertilizer prices; dwindling yields, due to a hostile and unpredictable climate; land loss and encroaching development; and, for the table’s five Black farmers, the persistence of systemic discrimination in the agriculture industry.
A few hours after the event, Beasley sends out an email with a detailed list of agriculture-related legislative goals that she will fight for if elected to U.S. Senate—expanding access to capital and crop insurance and helping farmers adopt climate-smart techniques, to name a few—but while she’s there, excepting the two minutes where she repeats back a summary of everything she’s heard, she stays quiet.
She nods, holds eye contact, and files each attendee’s words into her mental Rolodex, later using their perspectives to formulate a course of action.
It’s a master class in judicial temperament—which makes sense, because Beasley is a judge.
A 1991 graduate of the University of Tennessee College of Law, Beasley spent several years as a public defender in Cumberland County before rising through the ranks of the state’s judicial system, serving first as a state district court judge and later on the bench of the North Carolina Court of Appeals and the North Carolina Supreme Court.
In May, after reviewing dozens of cases Beasley heard in the appellate court, The Assembly esteemed her to be “a judge who was independent and hard to label,” adding that “lawyers who’ve appeared before her, as well as some former colleagues, describe her as thorough, fair, and even-handed.”
Patricia Timmons-Goodson, a retired NC Supreme Court justice who worked alongside Beasley for nearly the entirety of Beasley’s career, shared similar sentiments with the INDY.
Timmons-Goodson recalled a 2009 case, heard by Beasley in the appellate court, which asked whether the age and mental status of a juvenile suspect is relevant when deciding whether the suspect has been held in police custody—and thus when deciding whether the suspect was entitled to their Miranda rights. (The case centered around a 13-year-old special education student who had been held and interrogated by police—who did not read him his Miranda rights—in a school conference room.)
Beasley was the lone dissenter, arguing that it was “absurd” to employ the same definition of custody “regardless of whether the individual was eight or thirty-eight years old.” The case ultimately reached the U.S. Supreme Court, which concurred with Beasley’s ruling.
“That’s a example of how well she knows and understands the Constitution,” Timmons-Goodson says. “She is independent and bold, even in the face of colleagues who say, ‘That’s not the way I see it.’”
Beasley’s decades of experience and proven ability to win statewide elections made her a popular pick in the May primary, where she trounced her 10 opponents with 81 percent of the vote.
Since then, Beasley has upheld her pledge to not accept any corporate PAC money, relying on a record-setting surge of second-quarter donations—likely driven, in part, by the overturn of Roe v. Wade—to fund her campaign. Her ads emphasize that she is not a Washington insider but an impartial judge who has held dangerous offenders accountable in North Carolina and will do the same in Congress.
Wrenn, the Republican strategist, views Beasley’s advertising campaign as more effective than her opponent’s.
“I don’t agree with Beasley, but she comes across to me as a person,” Wrenn says. “Budd talks like a politician, and I think that’s not good.”
Along with his grocery store promos, Budd has launched a slew of attack ads that portray Beasley as soft on crime and bereft of the support of law enforcement. As a refute, and as an appeal to moderate voters, Beasley has touted the support of current and retired law enforcement officers and voiced opposition to the “Defund the Police” movement at multiple campaign events.
Timmons-Goodson says she always observed Beasley to be “tough in the courtroom” and sees Beasley as an ally to police, provided that police are on the right side of the law.
“If law enforcement is in the right and they’ve done their job as they’re called to do it, she’s right there with them,” Timmons-Goodson says. “At the same time, if the government has not dotted its i’s and crossed its t’s, she’s going to be strong enough and bold enough to say, ‘Ooh, didn’t quite get here on this one.’”
A few weeks after the farmer roundtable, I catch Beasley at a recreation center in Fayetteville, where she’s speaking to community members about the fundamental freedoms at stake in the upcoming election.
In an empty conference room, Beasley tells me about her faith, which she calls “the foundation of [her] service,” and shares memories of her mother, an activist and educator who served as the first Black dean at Austin Peay State University in Tennessee.
“We were all told that the 2020 election was the most important election of our lifetimes,” she says. “But if my late mother were here, she would tell us that every election is the most important election of our lifetimes.”
In our one-on-one conversation, Beasley is as warm and attentive as she was with the farmers in Durham, and when she takes the podium at the recreation center, she has the ability to command a room.
Bearing no script, she delivers a fiery, well-structured monologue about the importance of expanding access to health care, allocating resources to educators, combating the climate crisis, and protecting reproductive freedoms.
“We have to feel a sense of urgency in this election,” she says. “We must.”
The crowd of residents and elected officials—many of whom know her personally—is exhilarated and responsive, offering Beasley a near-constant smattering of applause and punctuating most of her statements with a “that’s right” or an “amen.” Every time she says her opponent’s name, the elderly woman next to me giggles and whispers, “Ted Butt. B-U-T-T, Butt.”
“Ted Budd has been in Congress for six years,” Beasley concludes. “So we don’t have to wonder what he will do. When people show you who they are—”
In unison, the crowd finishes the sentence for her: “We believe them.”
“The N-word! You know what the N-word is?”
My partner, Aaron, and I stare at the TV in our Wilmington hotel room, horrified but relieved that we left the Trump rally before its headliner took the stage. We’re at a Comfort Inn—a few miles away from the Aero Center, where Trump is speaking—watching his address on C-Span.
“No, no, no,” Trump says quickly, likely to quell folks in the crowd yelling the slur. “It’s the ‘nuclear’ word.” (He was lamenting Vladimir Putin’s recent threat to use nuclear weapons in the war against Ukraine, a war that “wouldn’t have happened” had Trump remained president.)
After spewing his usual lies and racist remarks for more than 40 minutes, Trump finally mentions Budd, calling the congressman “rock solid on defending our borders” and vowing that he will “represent you long and hard.”
“Ted is running against a weak-on-crime, left-wing extremist named Cheri Beasley,” Trump says. “She was a judge, Cheri Beasley was. She was a Marxist radical.”
Pearce, the Democratic strategist, tells me that North Carolina elections are always about race. Racist rhetoric is the easiest way to scare swing voters, he says.
In this year’s senate contest, Republicans are centering their fear tactics around “weak on crime” Beasley—who, if elected, would become North Carolina’s first Black senator—as well as “the migrant invasion” and the non-issue of public schools teaching critical race theory, according to Pearce.
In past elections, the state GOP has launched similar campaigns about affirmative action and voter ID laws, he says.
Shortly after North Carolina’s 1984 senate race between then-Democratic governor Jim Hunt and then-Republican incumbent Jesse Helms—who, six years later, would famously win reelection after using images of white hands to argue that white people were losing job opportunities to “racial quotas”—Pearce says he conducted a poll to reveal which issue had most accurately predicted the way that voters cast their ballots.
When he looked at whether or not voters supported making Martin Luther King Jr. Day a federal holiday, Pearce says he was able to predict their senate votes with nearly 100 percent accuracy.
“It’s all about race,” Pearce says. “One word. It’s about race. And Trump has made it even more about race.”
Indeed, when my partner and I arrive at the procession of vendor and volunteer booths stationed outside the Aero Center, we see ralliers dressed in shirts that say things like “Civil War-ning” and “White Privilege: A False Political Ideology Created to Cultivate Division.” It doesn’t take long for someone to say the N-word within earshot.
Aaron, who is Black, describes his rally experience as a strange combination of invisibility and tokenism, where the dozen volunteers who approach me act like he’s not there (the one time someone does talk to him, it’s to explain that critical race theory is a form of racism)—but, a few seconds after walking away, volunteers surreptitiously try to catch him in the backgrounds of their photos, to store in their arsenal, we surmise, in case someone accuses them of being racist.
After waiting in line for four hours, we finally pass through the white, high-peaked security tents (a proverbial hood-and-cloaking, if you will), and in another case of probable tokenism, someone from Trump’s security team hastily pulls us out of the crowd and seats us on the bleachers behind the speaker’s podium.
Before Budd speaks, we hear from a handful of other state GOP incumbents and hopefuls, like Bo Hines, who riles up the crowd by condemning “men competing in women’s athletics,” and U.S. Rep. David Rouzer, who underscores the need for voter ID laws and a Parents’ Bill of Rights.
“Education should be about learning,” Rouzer says. “Not liberal indoctrination and sexual perversion designed to destroy the family structure so crucial to a civil society.”
When Budd takes the stand, clad in a navy suit and an American flag pin, he quickly proves to be less charismatic than each of the previous speakers, including 27-year-old Hines, who has zero political experience.
With frequent glances at his script, Budd delivers a halting, watered-down version of the speeches we’ve already heard, talking mostly about inflation, Biden’s incompetence, and Beasley’s judicial record.
Every time he says Beasley’s name, the crowd chants, “Lock her up.”
The woman sitting next to me is Debbie Love, the second vice chair of the New Hanover County GOP. She only has good things to say about Budd; Budd’s son used to go to her church, and she occasionally saw Budd when he joined his son for services.
“He comes into the back of the church,” Love says about Budd. “He doesn’t want anybody to know who he is—he just wants to come and worship.”
She calls Budd an “honorable man” but later clarifies that she “doesn’t have a personal relationship” with him.
“It’s an observational relationship,” Love says.
This seems to be the case with everyone. A few hours later, even Trump admits that Budd is an enigma.
“The congressmen, they all called [and said], ‘Can you do us a favor, can you endorse Ted Budd?’” Trump says. “I said, ‘I hear he’s good, tell me about him.’ But a lot of people didn’t know him.”
In Love’s telling, it seems like Budd doesn’t want anybody to know who he is.
This, I think, is because Budd is uncomfortable with himself.
After months spent distancing himself from Trump, Budd took the stage with the former president and shouted “Make America Great Again.” After proclaiming his support for farmers, veterans, and child abuse victims, he votes and behaves in ways that work against them. And after more than a decade of selling firearms, he says that Beasley is the one abetting criminals.
To close his speech at the Trump rally, Budd touts his adherence to his family’s motto, “Just do what you say you’re gonna do.”
“That’s how I’ve operated throughout my life,” Budd says. “That’s how I’ve served in the U.S. Congress, and that’s the kind of U.S. senator that I’m gonna be.”
After he says it, he inhales, holds his breath, and frowns, like maybe he knows it’s not true.
Editor’s note: This story has been corrected to reflect that the Jesse Helms “white hands” racial quota ad ran in Helms’s 1990 reelection campaign, not during his first reelection campaign in 1984.
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