SALISBURY, N.C. — Republican Rep. Ted Budd opened the calendar on his iPhone during a campaign day last week to reveal a jam-packed schedule — wake up at 4:55 a.m., breakfast with veterans, an opioid discussion in another county — and yet he was worried that it wasn’t enough.
“I’m getting nervous because of the white space I see,” said Budd, pointing to the few blank lines on the schedule.
Across the country, dozens of House Republicans who previously coasted to victory are for the first time facing credible and well-financed Democratic opponents — and working furiously to find a strategy for survival.
House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) delivered a stern message last month to the rank and file after a surprisingly narrow special election win in a reliably Republican Arizona district: Wake up, because Democrats are motivated.
Many newly vulnerable Republicans represent suburban communities such as Budd’s, where Donald Trump won in 2016 but has since lost popularity.
Budd is one of two GOP incumbents in this region of North Carolina being targeted by Democrats, with pollsters and independent handicappers saying the races could be competitive.
The two GOP incumbents have adopted slightly different strategies for self-preservation, largely out of necessity.
While Budd has been able to focus on the general election by talking at times about how he has bucked his party, Rep. Robert Pittenger has been grappling with a bitter Republican challenge ahead of Tuesday’s primary election here that has led him to move to the right in ways likely to complicate his message to voters in the fall.
Democrats had largely ignored the districts in this decade after Republicans redrew the state’s congressional boundaries to their advantage. Budd’s district, which stretches from Democratic-leaning Greensboro to the northern suburbs of Charlotte, backed Trump by 9 percentage points. Voters in Pittenger’s district, which rolls from Charlotte nearly to the state’s coastline, supported the president by almost 12 points.
In 2016, Budd and Pittenger survived primaries, then sailed to victory over Democrats who raised less than $100,000. This election, Democrats recruited Kathy Manning, a philanthropist and longtime party donor who has raised $1.3 million to Budd’s $832,690. Dan McCready, a business executive and veteran, has raised $1.9 million to Pittenger’s $1.1 million.
Recent moves show that Republicans see these two districts as emblematic of their larger problems.
In April, Vice President Pence shared a stage with Pittenger during a visit to Charlotte. The Congressional Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with House GOP leadership, has added Budd’s race to its $50 million midterm ad buy.
Budd and Pittenger are running as allies of the president but not counting on him or the national party to come up with a campaign message.
Budd, 46, who’s backed by the conservative Club for Growth and won his first term in 2016 by promising to “turn Washington, D.C., inside out,” is pitching himself as a hard-working outsider.
He is also talking about the benefits of bipartisanship, though he is a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, which often pressures the party’s leadership to maintain ideological purity on many issues.
At one point last week, he sought to assure a shelter operator seeking more money to help victims of human trafficking by saying: “Ninety-four percent of the bills that are passed through the House are bipartisan. That doesn’t get reported a lot because it’s not exciting.”
Manning, who had been recruited before and declined, described herself as a worried member of the community. “This is a district that’s been very badly hurt, and since Trump’s been elected, it hasn’t seen dramatic improvement,” she said after addressing voters at a barbecue-sandwich meet-and-greet.
Budd, meanwhile, describes a country on the right track, but far from healed.
At a meeting with school superintendents, Budd, a gun store owner, nodded as law enforcement officials talked about “hardening” schools, but he did not mention arming teachers — a position advanced by the National Rifle Association, which supports him.
At the veterans’ breakfast, Budd promoted legislation to help those who served and suggested using health providers outside the Department of Veterans Affairs to provide some care, a shift toward privatization favored by conservatives.
Budd said he’d also built support with voters by breaking with his party’s leadership — when he could. He pointed to the $1.3 trillion spending bill, known in congressional parlance as the “omnibus.”
“They know where I’m going to differ from them; on the omnibus, we’re going to disagree on that,” he said. “I’ve never had any issue in the 16 months I’ve been in Congress where more people have thanked me more for voting no than on the omnibus. It’s fiscally irresponsible.”
For the 69-year old Pittenger, the hotly contested primary has drained his resources and forced him to accentuate his conservative bona fides — developments that are likely to make his general election campaign more difficult.
Leaflets show Pittenger with Trump, while his GOP rival, conservative pastor Mark Harris, has used a photo of his speech at a 2016 Trump rally.
Pittenger bought his first ads in December — a radio spot that put the congressman at the center of the culture war, describing him as a bulwark against liberals.
“They burn our flag, disrespect our national anthem and criticize the celebration of American freedom,” said a narrator in the ad. “They even refuse to say Merry Christmas.”
In an interview, Harris argued that Pittenger would be the weaker candidate in November, an incumbent who had voted for the spending bill.
“The swamp that Trump wants to drain still has a lot of critters in it,” Harris said.
As he shook hands outside a Charlotte polling station, where Republican turnout during early voting ahead of the Tuesday primary was spotty, Pittenger defended his vote for the spending bill, saying he had cast it to protect military funding. It was the same argument the president made when he signed the bill.
Voters in the district’s rural counties, said Pittenger, had “a love affair” with the president. Like them, he thought Trump was making history; the question, he said, was whether his Democratic opponent could fool them.
“Dan McCready has support from Tom Steyer and from antifa,” said Pittenger, referring to the billionaire pushing for Trump’s impeachment and the collection of anti-fascist militant groups. “I’m told — I need to check this out — that he has support from George Soros, too. I’m not going to let the public be blindsided and let this guy make himself over into something different from what he really is.”
Steyer has pledged to spend at least $1 million on young-voter turnout in Pittenger’s and Budd’s districts through his political organization, NextGen. Soros, the liberal donor who is a favorite rhetorical target for conservatives, has not been involved in the campaign, though one of his foundations has donated to the group Indivisible, which is backing many Democratic candidates including McCready.
McCready, 34, laughed when told about how Pittenger had described him, and he emphasized that unlike some Democrats, he was even running on retaining parts of the tax cut.
“I believe in country over party,” he said. “I do think there are some steps in the right direction in regard to the tax bill that was passed, particularly in regards to making American business more competitive. But it did not do enough for the middle class.”
A few hours after speaking to The Washington Post, Pittenger amended his critique of the likely Democratic nominee; through a spokesman, he said McCready had been endorsed by Indivisible, not antifa groups.
But in a fundraising email sent last week, Pittenger’s campaign wrote that “while McCready will campaign as a centrist conservative, he is already supported and endorsed by leftists and Pelosi friends Tom Steyer and George Soros as well as unapologetic violence activists, Antifa.”
The Democrat intended to use that kind of rhetoric to frame Pittenger as out of touch with the district — and embarrassing. “He’s most well known for his racist comments,” said McCready, referring to a 2016 interview in which the congressman said that rioters in Charlotte hated white people “because white people are successful and they’re not.”
Pittenger said anyone who resurrected that quote in a campaign was being unfair. He was quoting an activist, he said.
In 2016, the controversy over that quote quickly dissipated, and Pittenger won easily. “I run like I’m behind every single year,” he said.