WILMINGTON — In the competition to win the seat of retiring U.S. Senator Richard Burr, one Republican newcomer has attracted hefty support from one of Wilmington’s deepest pockets.
Both political parties in N.C. have the chance to form a next-generation identity in advance of the upcoming midterm elections.While Democrats have unified around former state Supreme Court Justice Cheri Beasley, after Jeff Jackson sidelined himself in December, the Republican Party will instead define itself through the primaries. Initially, the featured candidates of the GOP included U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, who wields an endorsement from former President Donald Trump, former Gov. Pat McCrory, and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker.
Then, in October, Marjorie Eastman arrived. A former intelligence officer and commander from Cary, who served in two combat deployments — in Iraq in support of operation Iraqi Freedom and in Afghanistan for Operation Enduring Freedom — the self-described “party crasher” established her candidacy amid the withdrawal of American military forces from Afghanistan.
“Obviously, the disastrous fall is on Biden’s hands,” Eastman said in an interview. “When you look deeper and you peel it back, the root is about career politicians being in a decision-making seat, and not leaders. And so as I looked at the other career politicians that are running, I thought: No way, we’ve got to stop this.”
She spoke of her candidacy as a “return to the Reagan era,” with focus on limited government and free enterprise. One of her marquee issues is advocating for term limits in the U.S. Senate, which she plans to address during her first speech on the Senate floor, she said.
“And introducing that legislation year after year after year, and building a coalition,” she added. “Right now in the system, we have people that have been there forever.”
Eastman is the only GOP candidate brandishing a military background on her résumé, leading her supporters to believe she could bring an unparalleled level of discipline to the office.
“Marjorie brings all the traits to the gamesmanship of politics that make for honor and a just result,” said George Rountree III, a prominent Wilmington-area attorney who has contributed to Eastman’s campaign. “She was fresh,” he said of meeting her. “She was like a newly cut rose that had not been damaged by a prior foray into politics.”
In Wilmington, Eastman has one of the area’s biggest financial players in her corner. PPD founder Fred Eshelman is manning a Super PAC that has been bankrolling advertisement buys for Eastman.
Restore Common Sense, Inc. was established on Nov. 16, 2021, with Eshelman as the treasurer. It spent around $850,000 on radio, billboard and social media promotions for Eastman before the end of the year — then at least another $800,000 after Jan. 1. Eshelman sourced a $1.75 million war chest himself, according to campaign finance data. He was unable to be reached for comment. Candidates themselves cannot communicate with Super PACs.
After building PPD into a fixture of Wilmington, Eshelman sold his interests in the company in 2011 and pursued other pharmaceutical and financial ventures. He made headlines last year when he sued a pro-Trump, Texas-based nonprofit in an attempt to reclaim $2.5 million he contributed to its efforts to expose 2020 election fraud in battleground states.
DEEP DIVE: PPD founder wants back $2.5m contribution after nonprofit failed to prove voter fraud to keep Trump in office
Rountree said the military presence in North Carolina — most notably, Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune — would be served well by a senator with experience in the armed forces. He said the state has failed in generations past at offering alluring incentives to businesses and making the most of key installations like the Wilmington port.
“We have a lot about which to be thankful for what they’ve done,” Rountree said of current and former members of Congress. “Now, have they done anything like what Strom Thurmond did for South Carolina? Nuh uh. … Are we getting the kind of help that a first-class person like Marjorie can produce? I don’t know. We can find out by electing her.”
In the final three months of 2021, Beasley, the presumptive Democratic nominee, raised more than $2.1 million in campaign contributions, according to The News & Observer. In the same window, Budd raised around $968,000 and McCrory collected $748,000.
In her first campaign finance filing, Eastman reported over $423,000 in contributions in the fourth quarter of 2021, according to the N&O. Walker’s committee raised $146,000.
“I’m the only one that laced up my boots and stood on the ground in combat zones,” Eastman said. “I bring a really deep, thoughtful perspective, and I think that’s very important for our next U.S. Senator to have. Because these are not peaceful times.”
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