Are Democrats squandering their chances in North Carolina Senate race?
North Carolina Democrats are pleading for outside groups to funnel more money into the state’s hotly contested Senate race, believing that it may offer the party one of its best shots at flipping a GOP-held seat in November.
Polling averages in North Carolina show Rep. Ted Budd (R) and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley (D) deadlocked in the race to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R). At the same time, Beasley has maintained a yawning cash advantage over Budd.
Yet strategists and political operatives lament that the race has largely flown under the radar for national Democrats and are warning against squandering an opportunity in a state that has repeatedly proven competitive — yet ultimately elusive — for the party in recent years.
“It’s a year where we have a great candidate, and I think the national Democrats are making a big mistake if they’re not paying attention to North Carolina,” said Bruce Thompson, a veteran Democratic consultant in the state.
“What worries me is people who are fixated on states like Ohio, where Republicans have been winning most of the statewide races,” he added. “In North Carolina, we have a great track record of winning. If any state is purple, it’s North Carolina.”
Of course, it’s not as if the race hasn’t gotten any attention from national Democratic groups.
Women Vote, the independent expenditure arm of Democratic fundraising giant EMILY’s List, charged into the North Carolina Senate race earlier this month with a $2.7 million investment highlighting Beasley’s stance on abortion rights, an issue that has helped propel Democratic candidates up and down the ballot since the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade over the summer.
And on Tuesday, the Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), announced a $2 million ad campaign in the state, adding to a previous seven-figure investment in North Carolina.
Still, the spending from Democratic groups pales in comparison to the money that Republicans are pumping into the race. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), has already reserved more than $27 million in ads to boost Budd through Election Day.
Democrats are also bracing for a fresh wave of Republican spending from MAGA Inc., a new super PAC created by allies of Donald Trump that will back GOP candidates like Budd who were endorsed by the former president in their primaries.
Thompson and other North Carolina Democrats acknowledged that the lack of national attention to the race stems, at least in part, from the fact that it’s been a tamer affair than some of the year’s other marquee Senate match-ups.
Unlike higher-profile Republican Senate candidates like author and venture capitalist J.D. Vance, the party’s nominee in Ohio, or celebrity physician Mehmet Oz, the GOP nominee in Pennsylvania, Budd is a sitting member of Congress who is seen as a more disciplined campaigner.
He stayed off the airwaves for months before returning with a series of ads targeting issues like inflation, government spending and President Biden’s sagging approval ratings. He also hasn’t suffered the same kind of gaffes and missteps that other top GOP Senate candidates have, allowing him to keep a relatively low media profile.
“Those guys say the quiet part out loud, and Budd has been disciplined not to do that,” Thompson said, referring to other GOP Senate candidates like Vance and Blake Masters in Arizona. “Ted Budd is just plain vanilla. He seems like a nice guy when you talk to him, so therefore he hasn’t gotten in trouble with soundbites.”
Still, Democrats say that while Budd may be relatively quiet, he’s no less controversial than other GOP Senate nominees. He voted against certifying the results of the 2020 election and has declined to say whether he would accept the results of this year’s election.
He also signed on as a co-sponsor to a House bill introduced earlier this month that seeks to ban abortions nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
And Budd isn’t avoiding Trump, despite concerns among some Republicans that the former president could be a drag on the party’s candidates this year. The two appeared alongside each other at a rally on Friday in Wilmington, N.C., where Budd pledged to “stop the Biden-Beasley agenda and make America great again.”
Nevertheless, the Senate contest in North Carolina has become something of a sleeper race.
“You have a traditional race in North Carolina where a member of Congress is running against a former state Supreme Court judge,” Doug Heye, a Republican strategist and veteran of several North Carolina political campaigns, said. “It’s not as attention-getting as Blake Masters saying all kinds of crazy things and running against an astronaut.”
But, Heye added, “it’s always been competitive. If you look back at margins over past races, North Carolina doesn’t have blowouts.”
Indeed, North Carolina routinely hosts some of the closest statewide races in the country. In 2020, Trump carried the state by little more than 1 percentage point, while Sen. Thom Tillis (R) beat Democrat Cal Cunningham by less than 2 points — and that was after a high-profile sex scandal hobbled Cunningham’s campaign.
That same year, Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, won reelection by a 4.5-point margin.
North Carolina has proven elusive for Democrats in some ways. The party hasn’t won a Senate race there since 2008 — the last time a Democratic presidential candidate carried the state.
One Democratic strategist familiar with Senate races acknowledged that some national groups may be hesitant to go all-in on North Carolina this year, especially after Cunningham’s loss two years ago. But, the strategist added, there’s reason to believe that 2022 could be different.
“People should spend more money on it. People should write more about the race,” the strategist said. “I think people feel disappointed about 2020 and what should have been a pickup for Democrats.”
Recent polling shows Budd and Beasley in a statistical tie. A survey from Emerson College Polling, The Hill and CBS17 in Raleigh, N.C., released just last week found Budd leading Beasley by just 3 percentage points, within the poll’s credibility interval. Meanwhile, an internal poll from Beasley’s campaign shared publicly on Tuesday found the two candidates tied at 46 percent each.
Democrats also say that Beasley is a different kind of candidate for the party. She has won statewide elections twice before, and only lost her 2020 state Supreme Court reelection bid by about 400 votes. On the campaign trail and in a swath of advertising, Beasley has played up her credentials as an independent-minded former judge.
If she wins in November, she would become North Carolina’s first Black senator.
“Cheri has been to all 100 counties and is meeting voters where they are to discuss how she will protect our constitutional rights and lower costs,” Kelci Hobson, a spokesperson for Beasley’s campaign, said.
“Meanwhile, Congressman Budd is losing support and his campaign is flailing as voters learn more about his record as an election denier hell-bent on banning abortion without exceptions who is bought and paid for by corporate special interests.”
Budd’s strategy, however, is clear: tie Beasley to Biden and hammer her on issues like inflation and crime — the very talking points that lie at the center of the GOP’s midterm strategy.
“While she might avoid Biden personnel when they visit North Carolina, Cheri Beasley has embraced the Biden policies that created the inflation that is crushing family budgets across North Carolina,” said Jonathan Felts, a senior adviser to Budd’s campaign. “Beasley has also tried to run away from her soft-on-crime record, but every major law enforcement organization in NC has rejected Beasley and endorsed Ted Budd instead.”
The race between Budd and Beasley could also be heading toward more open confrontation soon. The two candidates are set to meet next week for what could be their only debate.