How a gun store owner with no political experience won the nation’s most crowded primary

GOP congressional candidate Ted Budd in his gun store in Advance.
GOP congressional candidate Ted Budd in his gun store in Advance. bhenderson@charlotteobserver.com

Republican voters in a new congressional district north of Charlotte had a wealth of choices in last month’s primary: 17 candidates, including four legislators and several other familiar names from past races.

Voters, instead, picked one of the greenest of them. Gun store owner Ted Budd is in his first race for elected office.

Budd’s lack of political experience seemed to work the same magic it has for GOP presidential nominee Donald Trump. The conservative Club for Growth Action invested $500,000 in TV spots that helped Budd beat his closest rival by a nearly two-to-one margin.

The Club, which focuses on economic issues, touts Budd as a “pro-growth outsider” who has “faced the government’s crushing burden on small businesses.” The super PAC’s investment in him was the second-highest amount it has spent for a House candidate this year.

“Name recognition in cases like this means a lot. It appears that the Club for Growth’s money helped build that recognition,” said political scientist Martin Kifer of High Point University.

North Carolina’s congressional districts were redrawn this year after federal courts ruled two of them were racially gerrymandered, forcing do-over primaries in June that drew unusually low turnout.

The five-county 13th District sandwiches small towns and countryside between Statesville and Greensboro. With turnout of less than 8 percent, Budd won the primary – and a good chance he’ll represent the Republican-leaning district in Washington – with just 6,340 votes.

Political scientist Michael Bitzer of Salisbury’s Catawba College said the splintered field of 17 candidates probably had more to do with the outcome than voters snubbing incumbents.

“It certainly sends a message when an organization like the Club for Growth makes the kind of investment they did in Ted Budd,” Bitzer said.

Guns and religion

Five days after Budd’s primary win, Omar Mateen shot and killed 49 people at a gay club in Orlando, Fla. Mateen used an assault-style rifle like those Budd’s store north of Winston-Salem sells.

Budd, 44, doesn’t shrink from the debate over gun control. The former seminarian says the massacre revealed less about the shortcomings of gun laws than the violent impulses of some owners.

“This is not a device problem, but a people problem,” he said. “It’s intellectually lazy to continue to talk about a device problem when the real problem is evil – the darkest parts of human nature that can often go unchecked at times.”

Gun sales have soared since President Barack Obama took office in 2009 and ProShots, the store and indoor range Budd has owned since 2010, is no exception. Customers are growing more diverse in age, gender and lifestyles, he said, and most are motivated by self-defense.

The Orlando shootings, he says, were Islamic terrorism that demanded a swift response. Budd said authorities should tweak the rules that led to the FBI taking Mateen off a list of suspected terrorists, but he sees no need for new gun laws.

Bruce Davis, Budd’s Democratic opponent, was himself an expert shooter during his 20-year Marine Corps career. Now the owner of a daycare center, he’s a staunch supporter of the Second Amendment.

But he says further restrictions, such as deeper background checks or ending gun sales to people on no-fly lists, are needed to limit mass shootings. “We need ways to make sure guns are not getting in the wrong hands,” he said.

Davis is optimistic those measures can be enacted for the same reason he believes he can beat Budd in a GOP-tilted district. Most voters, he says, yearn for a middle ground.

Through June, Budd had raised $150,000 in contributions and loaned his campaign $50,000. Davis, a former Guilford County commissioner, had raised less than $22,000 and has $11,000 in loans.

Giving back

Ardent supporters Randy and Janice Boyer, longtime friends and neighbors, see Budd as an antidote to career politicians, a changing culture and freedoms they feel slipping away.

“He makes no excuses for being a Christian, for being pro-gun, and his whole family is that way," Janice Boyer said.

Budd grew up on a 300-acre Davie County farm, still his home, as his father built a janitorial supply house into a facility-services company that employs 3,400 people in 10 states.

He earned master’s degrees in theology and business administration while raising three home-schooled children with his wife, Amy Kate. They met on a college mission trip to the Soviet Union just before it collapsed in 1991.

Budd considers the good fortune in his life an obligation to give back. “Like changing a tire for somebody on the side of the road,” he said of his bid for Congress, “but on a different scale.”

He exercised a life-long interest in politics by working phone banks for the late Sen. Jesse Helms as a freshman at Appalachian State University, but says he felt no “immediate itch” to run for office himself.

“He has a Biblical world view, and he is very, very motivated to help his country, his family and his fellow man,” said former U.S. Rep Robin Hayes, a family friend who is now state Republican chairman. “He’s just a very bright individual.”

Budd voted for Ted Cruz in the March presidential primary but now backs Trump.

Budd promises to limit himself to three terms in Congress and says voters don’t want candidates to make careers out of politics. “I think they want somebody like themselves,” he said.

Bruce Henderson: 704-358-5051, @bhender