RALEIGH, N.C. — North Carolina has an open race for a seat in the U.S. Senate, and three of the top Republican candidates met in Raleigh for a debate Saturday.

Noticeably absent was Rep. Ted Budd, who has former President Donald Trump’s endorsement for the seat currently held by Sen. Richard Burr. Former Gov. Pat McCrory, former Congressman Mark Walker and political newcomer Marjorie Eastman participated in the debate.

What You Need To Know

  • Three leading GOP candidates for Senate in North Carolina met for a debate in Raleigh Saturday
  • Former Gov. Pat McCrory, former Congressman Mark Walker and political newcomer Marjorie Eastman participated in the debate. One leading candidate, Rep. Ted Budd, did not join the debate
  • The debate came at the end of the John Locke Foundation's Carolina Liberty Conference
  • Republicans will choose their Senate candidate in the primary election May 17

The candidates debated public policy and took turns criticizing Budd, who was in Orlando, Florida, at the Conservative Political Action Conference.

“I will show up,” McCrory said, noting Budd’s absence. An empty podium sat to the former governor’s right.

“I showed up as a mayor and showed up as governor,” he said. “We need a U.S. senator who will show up.”

After answering one question, Eastman waved to her right and asked, “Should we give a minute to the empty podium?”

Before the debate, John Locke Foundation President Donald Bryson said the Budd campaign would not say whether the candidate would be there.

“If he comes up at 3:29 p.m., he can participate,” Bryson said, shortly before the debate began at 3:30 p.m.

The debate came at the end of the John Locke Foundation’s Carolina Liberty Conference. About 300 North Carolina Republicans met Friday and Saturday for the event in a Marriott across from Crabtree Valley Mall in Raleigh.

But many of the state’s most prominent Republicans skipped this year’s conference in favor of the national CPAC, happening on the same weekend. Those Republicans included Rep. Madison Cawthorn and Budd.

Another noticeable absence at the Raleigh conference: There were none of the ubiquitous red “make America great again” hats that have become commonplace at GOP gatherings in recent years.

Saturday’s debate focused on questions of policy and politics, including inflation, President Joe Biden’s Supreme Court pick, the role of the federal government in education and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

All three candidates roundly condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine.

“Putin is a thug,” said Eastman, a combat veteran who joined the Army after the Sept. 11, 2001, attack.

“We have to go after Putin directly,” said Walker. He said the United States should not put its own soldiers in harm’s way, but should increase sanctions on Russia.

The candidates were all generally in agreement about the role of government in education.

“I want the federal government to be nonexistent when it comes to how parents educate their children,” Walker said.

“We need to be sure our students are being taught nonfiction, not CRT,” Eastman said, referring to critical race theory, which has become a rallying cry for conservatives.

“We need to start talking about the American dream in our schools, not dividing us, not Balkanizing us,” McCrory said.

One topic that divided the candidates was minimum wage. Walker was the only candidate who said he would not increase the minimum wage. Both Eastman and McCrory said it should be increased at least slightly.

McCrory said he would support a small increase based on the cost of living. But he faulted the federal government for driving the current labor crisis.

“We can’t find people to take $20 an hour jobs because the government is paying more,” he said. McCrory said he disagreed with Trump’s policies that increased payments to people during the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

“Is the current minimum wage a living wage? No, it’s not,” Eastman said.

Eastman focused throughout the debate on her military experience and her status as a political newcomer.

“I believe North Carolina wants a fresh voice, a combat veteran and a mom,” she said.

For McCrory, he said he has a track record representing North Carolina from his time as governor and, before then, mayor of Charlotte.

“I am going to focus on two main things: one is safety and the second is affordability, which are the two most important issues in our country at this time,” he said.

Walker’s main message was his experience in Congress and conservative credentials from his six years in the U.S. House.

“I am the highest rated America-first candidate in this race,” he said, touting his record supporting Trump’s “America first” agenda.

Republicans will pick their candidate May 17 to run against the presumptive Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley in the general election.