In the last four U.S. Senate elections in North Carolina, Democrats have come up short. But in 2022, Democrats swear things are going to be different.
Party leaders and strategists say they’ve got a winning candidate in Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. She won 81 percent of the vote in the state primary, and, if elected, she would be only the third Black woman to ever serve in the Senate.
“When you have historic candidacies, you end up in a place where voters turn up in higher levels than they traditionally do,” said Morgan Jackson, a North Carolina Democratic strategist.
Where Democratic strategists feel they have a strong candidate in Beasley, they also believe they have a weak candidate in the Republican nominee: Rep. Ted Budd, a third-term congressman who cruised to victory in the primary after winning former President Donald Trump’s endorsement.
Budd was one of the 147 members to vote against certifying the 2020 election results and, on top of being a member of the far-right House Freedom Caucus, he’s backed by the ultra-conservative PAC Club for Growth.
North Carolina is one of the few Senate pickup opportunities for Democrats this cycle. And early polling shows the race between Beasley and Budd as highly competitive.
“Cheri made this race competitive and can win, which is why polls show this race is tied and Washington Republicans are spending millions of dollars on false attacks and to prop up out-for-himself Congressman Ted Budd,” Beasley spokesperson Dory MacMillan said in a statement.
But even as the signs point toward a competitive race for Democrats, they’ve been that way before.
In 2020, Democrats nationwide rallied around then-Senate nominee Cal Cunningham, a born-and-bred North Carolinian who had millions believing the seat was going blue. His campaign saw huge Democratic spending: It was the most expensive Senate race that year, with left-leaning outside groups funneling millions to support their southern champion and Republicans also throwing piles of cash at their candidate, incumbent Sen. Thom Tillis (R).
But Cunningham’s candidacy deteriorated in the final days of the 2020 election, after news broke that he’d been in an extramarital affair, tarnishing his Boy-Scout-esque reputation and drawing criticism for his lack of transparency (as well as the actual texts he’d been sending his paramour). Cunningham ultimately lost the election by 1.8 points—and stymied the blue wave Democrats had hoped for in 2020.
Resetting that sort of momentum among a voting base can be difficult, especially in a year where Democrats nationally have multiple competitive seats—and a Senate majority—to protect. North Carolina will be vying for party resources with other competitive Senate races, like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, where both states already have one Democratic senator in office and which both went for Biden in 2020.
Conversely, Trump won North Carolina in 2020, and both of its sitting senators are Republicans.
Yet Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), DSCC chair, told The Daily Beast that North Carolina is certainly a priority for the committee. “I'm getting a lot of excitement on the campaign trail, it’s a clear contrast between her and her opponent who is an extreme candidate. He’s out of touch with the majority of North Carolina voters… she’s gonna do extremely well,” Peters said. “She’s gonna build a lot of excitement on the journey.”
Asked if he was concerned about Cunningham’s loss having any lasting effect on the race and Democratic enthusiasm in the Tar Heel state, Peters was blunt: ”No. Not at all.”
Budd’s campaign rejects the idea that he’s not in tune with North Carolina’s voting base. Budd’s senior adviser Jonathan Felts told The Daily Beast that Democrats said Tillis was out of touch in 2014, that Sen. Richard Burr (R-NC) was out of touch in 2016, and that Tillis was out of touch in 2020. ”And then they wasted millions of dollars in NC that could’ve helped Democrat candidates in other states who actually had a chance of winning,” Felts said.
“Looks like they’re gonna use the exact same Loser playbook in 2022. Doing the same thing, right down to the same spin, but expecting a different result is the very definition of insanity,” he continued.
Felts added that he expected inflation to play a big role on Democratic chances nationally and in North Carolina particularly.
It’s still unclear how much Democrats’ national campaign arms will be investing in North Carolina. But with Beasley’s dominating lead in the primary, she started statewide television and digital advertising in April. Senate Majority PAC, an outside group aligned with Democrats, has issued a seven-figure ad buy countering attacks against Beasley, and North Carolina TV stations have also pulled a series of attack ads on Beasley, which allegedly distorted her judicial record, per Charlotte’s NPR station.
Republicans have begun investing heavily in the state. The GOP-backed Senate leadership fund has already earmarked $27 million for ad buys in the state this fall, a number second only to their planned investment for a Senate race in Georgia.
Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in North Carolina, told The Daily Beast he expects the overall price tag of the race to be high, saying it’s “possible that this US Senate race will be in the top 10 of most expensive this year, but Democrats are facing a tough battle in Georgia, New Mexico, and Arizona, so those contests may get the bulk of money just defending those seats.”
Jackson concurred, telling The Daily Beast that much like 2020, he expects this race to ultimately be “incredibly expensive.”
It is, of course, still early in the cycle. “There’s not the arms race in North Carolina yet on either side,” Jackson said.
But as the clock ticks closer toward November, he’s still optimistic on chances for Democrats.
“I like our shot,” he said.