Why Democrats have a good shot at North Carolina’s open Senate seat

The strategy makes complete sense. Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, is trying to win a US Senate race in North Carolina, a 2020 swing state Donald Trump while also re-electing a Democratic governor, and a place where the key voters this time are not affiliated with either major party. The most politically “dangerous” scenario, says a national Democratic operative, is if her Republican opponent successfully turns the Senate race into a “Republican-or-Democrat fight.” So Beasley keeps his tone sunny and his range broad. She is a progressive, but low-key; when she gets into party politics, it’s usually over policies like health care or veterans benefits that she can position as ordinary people’s issues. “We have the most wonderful people here in North Carolina. I’m just grateful every day that we’re able to do this work,” Beasley tells me. “I’m running to represent all of North Carolina—Democrats, Republicans and Independents. I mean, if someone you love can’t afford prescription drugs and they’re missing doses and skipping pills, that’s not a partisan issue.”

Prod Beasley a bit, though, and a refreshing grit comes to the surface. Will North Carolina elect a black woman to statewide office? “The state already has!” Beasley quickly responds. “The state has elected me twice!” The first time, in 2008, she unseated an incumbent Republican appeals court judge to become the first black woman to win statewide office without first being appointed. “People realize that all of our institutions, including the Senate, must reflect the demographic makeup of our state and our country, and we are better for it.” What about state Democratic insiders who worry she hasn’t hit hard enough on her current opponent, conservative Republican congressman Ted Budd? “Stay tuned,” Beasley says firmly.

Beasley, 56, was born in Chicago and went to law school in Tennessee; after law school, she took a job as an assistant public defender in Fayetteville, North Carolina. She was a state district judge for nearly 10 years before being elected to the Court of Appeals; after four years she was appointed to the state supreme court. In 2019, Governor Roy Cooper promoted Beasley to chief justice. Her record includes spearheading the creation of North Carolina’s first human trafficking court and the introduction of a new paid family leave for judicial system employees. Nevertheless, in 2020 Beasley lost a bid for a full term to the Republican – by 401 votes Paul Martin Newby. However, she rebounded nicely as she clinched the Democratic Senate nomination in May 2022 with 81% of the primary vote.

The latest polls show a dead heat in a race for the seat being vacated by the retiree Richard Burr, a republican. Beasley is proving to be a formidable candidate, but Democrats have a recent history of solid candidates disappointing in North Carolina. Kay Hagan, after leading in the polls for weeks, she lost her 2014 Senate re-election race Thom Tillis; in 2020, Cal Cunningham‘s chance to beat Tillis vanished after the Democrat admitted to having an extramarital affair.

Unlike Hagan or Cunningham, however, Beasley has received some unexpected help from the opposition. Budd, 50, a three-term congressman from an upstate district, had to battle through a divisive, expensive Republican primary to win the nomination, leaving Budd’s campaign account with only about $1.2 million to start his campaign . Then, after the National Republican Senatorial Committee launched an ad purporting to blame Beasley for releasing a child abuser, several North Carolina television stations took the spot off the air because some of its claims were stretched. After that, Budd and his allies pretended to cede the airwaves to Beasley for most of the summer. “She roused Budd, and she was the only one on TV in July and August. Republicans allowed Beasley to introduce and define herself,” says one Democratic strategist in North Carolina, somewhat stunned. “They’re trying to bomb her now, but it’s getting harder . And another important effect is that the race was not nationalized.”

Beasley has made good use of the opening by traveling to all of North Carolina’s 100 counties and hammering home issues, in part because her campaign believes it has an opportunity to turn out large numbers of rural black voters. A new Beasley ad highlights reporting from Washington Post last year on AgriBioTech’s 2000 bankruptcy, in which the company initially repaid a $10 million loan to the Budd family shortly before it went bankrupt (although the Budd family later agreed to pay back $6 million in a settlement)—even as farmers , who had done it. business with the clothing reportedly lost millions. In a statement to Post at the time, Budd’s father, who ran the company, denied any wrongdoing and said Ted Budd had nothing to do with the financial mess. “North Carolina has a small number of Democratic counties turning bluer, and there are 46 counties turning redder,” says Doug Heyl, a top Democratic consultant in North Carolina. So the winning Democratic calculation is to pick up votes in major cities — Raleigh, Durham, Charlotte, Asheville — and pick up smaller margins elsewhere. “That’s why it’s interesting what Beasley has done when he talks about the Budd family business,” Heyl says. “It’s a big hit in a small town.”

The U.S. Supreme Court’s dismantling of abortion rights is a motivator for voters in North Carolina, as it is in races elsewhere, and lately Beasley has drawn a sharper contrast on the issue with Budd. “My opponent is so extremist,” she says, pointing to Budd’s endorsement last month of the South Carolina senator. Lindsey Grahams bill to ban abortion after 15 weeks of pregnancy. “One of my first things upon election to the Senate would be to codify and make Roe v. Wade the law of the land.”

Beasley says she’s “having a ball” campaigning. But she also knows things are likely to get ugly down the stretch. They are already heading in that direction. In late September, Trump appeared at a rally for Budd in Wilmington and quickly wove from a condemnation of Beasley to a mention of Vladimir Putin. “Putin mentioned the N-word. Do you know what the N-word is?” Trump asked the crowd. At least one attendee heard shouts of the N-word from the crowd. “No, no, no,” Trump continued. “It is atomic word.”

The race-baiting was intricate, but it wasn’t subtle. “While we’ve come to expect this type of dog-whistle rhetoric from President Trump, it’s absolutely disgusting that Ted Budd is willing to try to take advantage of it,” Beasley said. She is determined to stay on the high road, but Beasley will soon have an opportunity to demonstrate her toughness against Budd in person: The campaign’s first and only scheduled debate is on October 7.

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