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Can Democrats Pick Up a Senate Seat in the ‘Bluest Red State in the Country’?
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Can Democrats Pick Up a Senate Seat in the ‘Bluest Red State in the Country’?

An early look at the 2022 Senate race in North Carolina.

Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat or a presidential race in North Carolina since 2008, when Kay Hagan and Barack Obama won their respective races. Yet of all the states Donald Trump won last November, he won North Carolina by the smallest margin. With incumbent Republican Sen. Richard Burr retiring at the end of this term, North Carolina—which Western Carolina University political science professor Christopher Cooper calls “the bluest red state in the country”—represents one of the Democrats’ best pickup opportunities in the upper chamber.

But they will have to overcome a formidable challenge, as the Republican primary features an experienced field including one current and one former congressman, and a former governor. As is the case in other states, Donald Trump looms large over the Republican field. There was speculation that his daughter-in-law Lara Trump might enter the race, but she has “declined for now,” and Trump endorsed Rep. Ted Budd at the state GOP convention on June 5.  It’s a major shakeup to the three-way contest between Budd, former Rep. Mark Walker, and former Gov. Pat McCrory.

On the Democratic side, the political dynamics of the primary are being shaped by undercurrents of identity as state Sen. Jeff Jackson, an Army veteran, faces off against two African-American women: Cheri Beasley, the first black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, and former state Sen. Erica Smith, who lost in the 2020 Democratic Senate primary to Cal Cunningham.

Burr has been a fairly reliable Republican vote in the Senate since 2005, though he has fallen out of favor with the party over the last few years. In 2020, he was involved in an insider trading scandal, and this year he was censured by the North Carolina GOP after he was one of the seven Senate Republicans to vote to convict in Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial.

Thus far, the Republican primary between McCrory, Walker, and Budd has garnered more media attention and generated more acrimony than the Democratic contest. “The bench on the Republican side is more experienced, more high-profile, and consequently more reported on,” Mike Rusher, a public affairs consultant in Raleigh, told The Dispatch. “It’s not every day you’ve got a primary like this where you have two congressmen and a former governor in a three-way race.” 

Although they have both served in Congress, neither Budd nor Walker has anything approaching McCrory’s name recognition—and until Trump endorsed Budd, they were struggling to distinguish themselves from one another.

“It’s hard to imagine two candidates that are more similar [than Budd and Walker],” Cooper said. Walker served in Congress from 2015 to 2021, while Budd was elected in 2017. While they were in Congress together, their voting records were almost identical. Both men signed an amicus brief in support of Texas v. Pennsylvania, the lawsuit filed by Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton arguing that Pennsylvania’s 2020 election results should be overturned. (The Supreme Court declined to hear the case.)

Walker, who entered the race before Budd, has been setting himself up as a sort of consensus candidate. He can boast endorsements from dozens of Republican officials in the state, as well as nationally known figures such as South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott, western North Carolina Rep. Madison Cawthorn, and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee. He also handily won a straw poll at the NC GOP Convention in Greenville on June 5.

But in Trump, Budd has one endorsement that might outweigh all of those, and at the very least promises to upend Walker’s strategy. 

“It is difficult for me now to understand what Walker’s avenue is,” Cooper said. Walker will continue to tout the straw poll results and his own endorsements for as long as they are useful. But that might not be enough to compete with Budd, who also received the endorsement of the Club for Growth PAC upon entering the race in April. 

“You’d be a fool not to campaign on the back of Trump’s endorsement in the Republican primary, and that’s what I expect [Budd] to do,” Cooper said.

“I think we’re just going to have to wait and see how Budd translates that endorsement into gathering the Trump base, which is so prevalent in the North Carolina Republican Party politics, to his advantage,” Michael Bitzer, a political science professor at Catawba College, told The Dispatch

Even if the Trump endorsement ends up neutralizing Walker, Budd still faces a formidable opponent in McCrory, who has run for governor three times. After 14 years as the mayor of Charlotte, McCrory lost to Democrat Bev Perdue in 2008, won over Walter Dalton in 2012, and lost his re-election bid to Democrat Roy Cooper in 2016. 

In a May 3 column for the Charlotte Observer, former Republican operative Ray Martin described McCrory as “firmly in an establishment, country club Republican lane.” His tenure in the governor’s mansion is best remembered for a culture war controversy surrounding a “bathroom bill” which required people to use public restrooms corresponding to the sex listed on their birth certificate. The video announcing McCrory’s candidacy makes no mention of former President Trump.

“[McCrory has] maintained a statewide presence here on the campaign level for the last 14 years,” Rusher said. “[He’s] an incredible statewide force … well-known in Republican circles. … He’s going to have to leverage his positions on GOP policy issues and past successes as governor and his name recognition, and he’s going to have to use that path to overcome the Trump endorsement.” 

In a statement to the press following the Trump endorsement, McCrory said he was disappointed Trump had chosen “a Washington insider.” He also called Budd’s electability and Trump bona fides into question.

“Ted Budd opposed President Trump’s plan to secure the border, to support our farmers, to repeal Obamacare, and he even voted against President Trump’s COVID vaccines,” the statement continued. “If supporters of President Trump want his agenda to be supported in the US Senate, they should not vote for Ted Budd, who has opposed him at every turn—and who would lose to the far left next November.”

According to a Meeting Street Insights poll commissioned by the Budd campaign earlier this month, McCrory currently leads in both name recognition and favorability rating. But when the 500 primary voters in the sample were informed about the Trump endorsement, the dynamic changed, giving Budd a 19-point lead over McCrory and a 38-point lead over Walker. “This one piece of information [about the endorsement] turns McCrory’s 26-point lead into a 19-point deficit,” according to a memo released on Monday. (Meeting Street Insights gets a B/C provisional rating from FiveThirtyEight.)

Ultimately, the winner of the Republican primary will be determined by how much Budd is able to capitalize on the Trump endorsement and how Walker and McCrory respond. While 87 percent of the likely primary voters polled by the Budd campaign view former President Trump favorably, that doesn’t mean he will be the single defining factor in the campaign. In 2020, six Republicans received more raw votes in the North Carolina general election than Trump did, signaling an enthusiasm among some voters for conservative candidates less closely identified with him.

“Budd may be the national political favorite, Walker may be the elite Republican favorite, and McCrory is going to make the case that he is the rank-and-file Republican candidate.” Cooper said.

It’s not far-fetched to imagine Democrats winning a Senate seat in North Carolina. Both times Donald Trump won the state’s electoral votes, Democrat Roy Cooper won the governorship—narrowly in 2016, handily in 2020. At the same time, the purple of North Carolina has a distinctly reddish hue. Of the 20 statewide offices on the ballot in 2020, Republicans won 16. Democrats can win, but the conditions need to be right.

Michael Bitzer told The Dispatch that Democratic success in North Carolina has historically come from running “moderate, middle-of-the-road” candidates in the mold of Roy Cooper or former Gov. Jim Hunt. The two leading Democrats in the race, Cheri Beasley and Jeff Jackson, each say they are best positioned to replicate that success.

Beasley, the first African American woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, fell just 401 votes short of winning a full term in that position in last November’s election—outperforming Joe Biden and Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham. Upon launching her campaign in April, she revealed an extensive list of endorsements from key Democratic leaders across the state, including several state senators. Bitzer said “conventional wisdom expectations” might give Beasley an edge over Jackson, especially if she puts up strong second quarter fundraising numbers.

In his May 3 column, Ray Martin described Beasley as “more of an establishment candidate, and probably the most formidable general election nominee for Democrats.”

Jackson, who has served as a state senator from the Charlotte area since 2014, cannot say he has won a statewide race, but he can point to a legislative record. He is also widely regarded as a talented politician. In 2019, National Review reported that Jackson had considered running against Thom Tillis in the 2020 North Carolina Senate election and had even approached then-Minority Leader Chuck Schumer with a plan to hold 100 town halls in 100 days. He decided against running after Schumer told him that if he wanted the support of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC), he would need to devote his time to raising attack-ad money from a “windowless basement.”

Soon after he entered the 2022 race in January, Jackson announced that he had decided to hold 100 town halls in 100 days—one in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties. 

Jackson told The Dispatch that he wants his campaign to be “a true 100-county effort, not just a handshake and a photo op in every county, but actual engagement with every county.”

Of course, Jackson is not the first candidate to hold town halls. Beto O’Rourke famously toured all of Texas’s counties in his failed 2018 Senate bid. (Jackson told The Dispatch that as much as people “appreciate some light profanity,” he was trying to avoid going “full Beto … with cursing on the campaign trail.”) But if Jackson can follow through on his pledge to develop a “North Carolina agenda” distinct from that of the DSCC, his campaign could serve as a case study of whether resisting the temptation to nationalize a swing-state Senate race has any electoral payoff.

Jackson is clear-eyed about the challenges ahead. “As I tell people when I’m out there, [North Carolina Democrats are] 0-for-4 on Senate races [over the last 4 cycles], and nobody thinks the midterm is going to be the easy one,” he said. “We’re a state that probably leans one or two points to the right naturally, and this could be a year that easily adds one or two points to it, so my assumption is, to win [the general], I’ve got to outperform by three or four points. And in a state with over 10 million people, that is simply an extraordinary challenge. And it’s going to require an extraordinary effort.”

Republicans have dubbed Jackson “Cal Jr.” in an attempt to link him to failed 2020 Democratic nominee Cal Cunningham, whose campaign against Tillis was upended by the revelation of an extramarital affair. Although Jackson and Cunningham share some biographical similarities—both men are lawyers and National Guardsmen who enlisted in the Army after 9/11—Jackson insists that his campaign will have “very clear differences” when compared with “any previous campaign and any current campaign.”

The superficial resemblance between Jackson and Cunningham is not lost on Democrats either. “Unfortunately for [Jeff Jackson], I think it’s making a lot of Democrats in the state really reticent, especially when you have a real push to recruit more diverse candidates to appeal to base voters to come out, … [including] African American women,” Jessica Taylor, the Senate and governors editor at the Cook Political Report, told The Dispatch.

For her part, Erica Smith is urging North Carolina Democrats to adopt the Stacey Abrams playbook. After Abrams lost the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race to Brian Kemp, she spearheaded efforts to mobilize black voters ahead of the 2020 election and some have credited her with helping to flip Georgia to the Democrats.

“Fighting for those issues that are keeping people up at night is how we were able to flip Georgia blue,” Smith told The Dispatch. “We have to stop using black women as the base of the party and the backbone of the party and start seeing us as the face of the party, and supporting us at the top of the ticket. There are two black women to choose from [in this primary], but I believe that I am the [stronger] one.”

Smith’s lackluster fundraising numbers and open antagonism towards the party establishment in the state make her unlikely to be the nominee. But her comments highlight the fact that differences over how to strategically approach identity issues underlie some of the internal divisions within the Democratic party.

Beasley has indicated that she views her identity as important but not central to her campaign: “I’m glad to see the many women of color who have decided to run for office and I know I will bring an important perspective to the Senate that’s missing now—but that’s not why I’m running,” she said in a statement to The Dispatch. “I’m running to be a voice for North Carolina because there are people all over this state who have been left behind and ignored for too long.”

While Beasley and Jackson continue to pitch Democratic primary voters on their ability to win in a center-right state, Smith continues to dissent. “Moderate centrist candidates … have not been able to deliver,” she said.

Regardless of who wins the parties’ nominations, you can expect to hear a lot more about this race over the next year and a half—just don’t jump to conclusions too quickly. “A lot of this ultimately comes down to what does the political environment look like in [the] fall of 2022, and we really don’t know that yet,” Taylor said.

Price St. Clair is a former reporter for The Dispatch.