by Jim Mantyh
The 2022 midterms are less than a month away. With Election Day rapidly approaching, races in Arizona, Georgia, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin have taken the spotlight, and according to most pundits, control of the Senate comes down to these five states. Conspicuously, political analysts in the Beltway have all but stripped North Carolina, a purple, perennial swing state, and its Senate race between Congressman Ted Budd and state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley of its toss up status, and Democrats seem prepared to cede the state to Republicans.
But they shouldn’t. After growing up in Durham, the heart and soul of the Democratic Party in North Carolina, and spending significant time in reliably red towns like Brevard and Greenville, I know that even in the most partisan areas of the state, it doesn’t just boil down to picking between R and D. North Carolinians don’t care much for partisanship or simple party loyalty – it’s part of what makes the state a bit of a political enigma. Instead, when folks in the Tar Heel State go to the ballot box, they vote for individual candidates, the policies they support, and most importantly, their plan to fight for North Carolina in Washington.
Simply put, North Carolina’s Senate seat isn’t a lock for Republicans. In fact, it’s the most tightly contested race in the country. The most recent polling shows Beasley trailing by a single point, a closer margin than the Senate races taking place in Nevada, Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and New Hampshire. Despite that, the Democratic and Republican parties haven’t made North Carolina a priority. The Mitch McConnell-aligned super PAC Senate Leadership Fund has let North Carolina take a back seat compared to other battleground states, and the Democratic Senate Majority PAC only recently invested in Cheri Beasley’s campaign.
That’s not to say the inclination to mark North Carolina’s Senate seat as “lean Republican” isn’t understandable. Despite typically being considered a swingy, toss-up state, North Carolinians have a history of breaking Democrats’ hearts – look no further than Cal Cunningham’s disastrous and scandalous 2020 campaign – and this year, Democratic leadership in D.C. seems resigned to let history repeat itself, and Republicans are betting that they’ll sail to an easy victory. However, this year things are different, and everyone, including party leaders, reporters, and political experts should take North Carolina’s Senate race just as seriously as any other blue chip battleground state.
Why? To start, Congressman Budd isn’t your typical North Carolina Republican. Whereas Sens. Richard Burr and Thom Tillis have fashioned themselves as deal–cutting conservatives willing to buck their party on hot–button issues, Budd is cut from MAGA Republican cloth, and he has the voting record to prove it. The congressman voted with Donald Trump nearly 92% of the time and did not vote to certify the 2020 election, a record that helped him earn the controversial former president’s endorsement. However, while his conservative bona fides might help him with the Republican base, it’s also forced him to take uncomfortable, unpopular votes on issues like reproductive rights and gun safety as well as the bipartisan infrastructure deal, which allotted $109 million to North Carolina.
The good news for Congressman Budd is that Chief Justice Beasley has been anchored by President Joe Biden’s 32% approval rating in North Carolina and can’t escape sharp messaging from conservatives on crime and immigration. However, Chief Justice Beasley has largely weathered those attacks, flexing her record as North Carolina’s top judge and endorsements from law enforcement to inoculate herself against Republican rhetoric surrounding rising crime. She’s built her campaign for North Carolina – a state where unaffiliated voters outnumber Democrats and Republicans – running away from progressive positions while hammering her opponent’s opposition to broadly popular policies, a strategy that’s helped her build a commanding fundraising lead over Rep. Budd.
Without much fanfare from political analysts, pundits, or even the parties responsible for wrestling for control of Congress, the North Carolina Senate race is set up to be a nailbiter, and its result could have serious implications in the fight for Congress’ upper chamber. If races break well for Adam Laxalt and Herschel Walker in Nevada and Georgia, North Carolina could be the difference between Republicans retaking control of the Senate or sitting on the sidelines for two more years.
The North Carolina Senate race hasn’t gotten the attention it deserves, but keep an eye on the Tar Heel State on November 8 – the sparks are going to fly.
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