A grill sizzled with hamburgers and a small table overflowed with crock pots and side dishes on a Saturday afternoon at Rich Park in Mocksville in Davie County.
As a teen, Ted Budd played baseball on the field just feet away.
But the field was empty on this day as a few dozen people made their way to an opioid overdose awareness event held by the county’s Substance Abuse Family Education program. These were survivors of the opioid crisis — some in recovery, some there to honor family members no longer alive — and those working to ensure there are no more deaths.
“This became real personal to me, when a friend and volunteer on the campaign in 2016, right before I was elected, he lost his brother to addiction to opioid addiction,” Budd, a first-term Republican congressman from Davie County, told the group in short remarks in August. “If he was here with us, he’d be coming up on his 21st birthday.”
Budd, a first-term Republican congressman from Davie County, has made the opioid epidemic one of his top causes in the U.S. House. He’s facing a tough re-election campaign this fall against Democrat Kathy Manning in North Carolina’s 13th District, which includes parts or all of Davidson, Davie, Guilford, Iredell and Rowan counties. Libertarian Party candidate Tom Bailey and Green Party candidate Robert Corriher are also on the ballot in November.
Earlier this month, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a House-backed bipartisan package of more than 50 bills related to combating the opioid crisis. Budd mentioned several individual bills to the group — one to limit the over-prescribing of drugs in hospitals, one to provide money for transitional housing for those in recovery and another to help those in recovery to re-enter the work force.
“Look to me as one of the fighters on your behalf,” said Budd, who co-sponsored two of the bills.
Budd’s pitch is that he’s an old neighbor who happens to be a congressman working across the aisle on important issues, like the opioid crisis. It comes at a time when his Democratic challenger is hoping to define him as a rubber stamp for conservative groups that have financed his first two political campaigns. Budd pointed out that majority of measures in Congress are bipartisan.
Manning has made health care a top issue for her campaign, arguing Republican policies would leave many without affordable insurance. Budd has tried to portray Manning as a liberal donor who would be working for Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi’s priorities.
“His negative on her is tying her to (Nancy) Pelosi and (Hillary) Clinton. Her negative is he’s gone up there to clean up the swamp and has basically become part of it,” said Hunter Bacot, a political science professor at UNC Greensboro. “That race is districted for a Republican candidate. Any Democrat, no matter how well funded, is going to have an uphill battle.”
A recent poll by The New York Times and Siena College gave Budd a 47-41 lead over Manning with 12 percent undecided. It did not include the other candidates. A Civitas Institute poll released Monday put Budd at 44 percent and Manning at 41 percent.
Budd won the open seat with more than 56 percent of the vote in 2016 after winning a 17-way Republican primary.
‘Turn D.C. inside out’
Budd, who earned an MBA from Wake Forest and a master’s from Dallas Theological Seminary, worked in the family businesses — janitorial, landscaping, unarmed security and commercial chickens and grass seed before he opened a gun shop and shooting range in Advance.
In 2016, after redistricting, Republican Rep. George Holding opted to run in a different district, leaving a vacancy in the 13th district and not much time for Budd, who turns 47 on Oct. 21, to make a decision. He discussed the idea with his wife and three teenage children before opting to run.
“I told him he’s crazy,” said Rep. Richard Hudson, a Concord Republican and friend of Budd’s for more than 20 years.
Kim Kinder, the manager at Budd’s gun store, ProShots, and a long-time friend, said while most are content to complain, Budd decided it was time for action.
“Ted had the courage. He said, ‘I’m going to try to represent the folks that live around the area I live around. I hear them saying this and this and this, but I don’t know that people are listening,’” she said.
Budd got a large assist from the Club for Growth, a conservative group that favors limited government. Its PAC Club for Growth Action, which is dedicated to electing “pro-growth, limited government conservatives,” spent nearly $500,000 in support of Budd during the GOP primary in 2016.
His family, which founded and runs The Budd Group, a facilities service company, has donated generously to Republican candidates and causes, including the Club for Growth. Ted Budd has donated nearly $20,000 to Republican candidates, most of them from North Carolina, according to campaign finance records.
Richard Budd founded the Budd Group, which sprung from his purchase of a janitorial supply company in 1963. Joseph Budd is now its CEO.
In television ads in 2016, Budd ran as someone who would clean up Washington. “I’m running to turn D.C. inside out then get back home as soon as possible,” he said.
But a recent Manning television ad argues that Budd failed and instead enjoyed the trappings of political life.
“Congressman Budd promised to shake up Washington, but once he was elected, he immediately sold out his constituents to the highest special interest bidder. He hired lobbyists to run his office, took lavish trips around the world paid for by special interests, and is taking campaign cash from big banks, payday lenders, and insurance companies — and then voting their way,” said Tori Taylor, campaign manager for Manning.
Budd, a member of the conservative House Freedom Caucus, hired lobbyists from Heritage Action to key staff positions, according to Legistorm which tracks Hill staffing. Heritage Action is the lobbying arm for the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. Budd was one of 10 Republican lawmakers who attended a Club for Growth weekend retreat at an exclusive oceanfront resort in Florida, according to previous reporting by McClatchy in June of 2017. His wife also attended.
There is nothing illegal about the trips or the expenses.
“It’s laughable that Greensboro’s biggest political insider, Kathy Manning, is attacking Ted Budd for attending a few conservative policy conferences and hiring staff from conservative think tanks,” said Elizabeth Oglesby, Budd’s campaign manager.
Heritage Action, the House Freedom Fund and Club for Growth have made independent expenditures on Budd’s behalf this cycle.
He has been a reliable conservative vote, earning a 95 percent score from the Club for Growth in 2017, and he earned the club’s “Defender of Economic Freedom” award.
Budd said his constituents expect him to support President Donald Trump’s policies on tax reform, deregulation and giving more resources to the military, even if some of them have problems with Trump’s personal style.
“People in the 13th District care about policy. What do you believe and are you going to do what you said you are going to do,” Budd said. “And so far they say thank you for doing what you said you are going to do.”
In his first months in Congress, Budd, who sits on the financial services committee, ran into policy opposition from a group he expected to be on his side — the National Retailers Federation.
As Republicans worked to repeal Dodd-Frank, an Obama-era bill that regulated the banking industry, Budd pushed for the elimination of limits on so-called credit card “swipe fees,” the fees banks charge retailers when customers use their debit cards.
Banks dislike the limits and have argued that losses from the fees are why they have ended free checking accounts and other measures, arguments Budd echoed in a piece explaining his position and calling the limits “price controls.” But the National Retail Federation likes the policy and ran an ad hitting Budd.
The retailers won as Congress left the swipe fee limits. The American Bankers Association has spent $125,000 on cable and digital advertising for Budd in the 2018 election.
Budd’s friend and supporters use the word “genuine” to describe the congressman. He campaigned in August in blue jeans before adding a sports coat when addressing the opioid group.
“The job he has done is A-plus. He’s rolled up his sleeves and stayed engaged,” said Midway Mayor John Bynum, a Budd supporter and friend. Midway is a 9-square mile town of 4,900 in northern Davidson County.
Budd faced criticism in national outlets for his poor fundraising totals early in the cycle. National Journal labeled him as one of the House’s “worst slackers.” Politico mentioned him a in a story about “the lazy Republican” being a general fear for party leaders. But Budd’s fund-raising, though still trailing Manning, has picked up, and he said he is running with urgency.
“You have to have an attitude that you’re never entitled to this position and you have to earn it each and every time,” Budd said in August after speaking to supporters at the Gumtree Fire Department in Davidson County and before knocking on doors and speaking to the group in Mocksville. “The attitude is that you’re 10 points behind and gaining.”