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Will North Carolina’s Senate Race Break Democratic Hearts Again?

CHARLOTTE, NC – The pep rally at Lenny Boy Brewing Company on Friday night was a packed and raucous vote of confidence as Democratic officials greeted the “next senator” from North Carolina, Cheri Beasley, and the Mecklenburg County faithful asked about her plans for after her inevitable triumph come election day.

Then the Rev. Derinzer Johnson, a North Carolina native recently returned from New Jersey, grabbed a microphone with a worried look to plead with Ms. Beasley, a former state chief justice: Let him help her.

“Being close is not good enough – you have to win,” he later said. “They are not organized,” he said of Ms. Beasley’s political team. “They are campaigning, but they are not organized.”

The race for the seat of Sen. Richard M. Burr, a retiring Republican, may be 2022’s sleeper race, drawing far less attention than the colorful campaigns in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Georgia. Even Ohio has captured more of the spotlight, although North Carolina is a more evenly divided state, and public opinion polls have shown Ms. Beasley is statistically tied with his Republican opponent, Representative Ted Budd.

This may be because the sleeper is also the sleepiest.

If fire is what voters are looking for, they won’t find it here. Neither Ms. Beasley or Mr. Budd could be called fiery on the stump, and that seems to be the way they want it: Ms. Beasley runs as referee over the matchand Mr. Budd, hoping to shed his association with former President Donald J. Trump, is trying to come off as a generic Republican campaign against an unpopular Democratic president when the national environment favors his party.

For Ms. Beasley is what fits an offensive line, her oft-repeated “This Budd’s not for you” returning to a beer ad from 1979.

“If things continue the way they are right now, it’s a toss up,” said Michael Bitzer, chairman of the politics department at Catawba College in central North Carolina.

North Carolina is a state that loves to break the hearts of Democrats, and they can be forgiven for their bias. A near-lockdown at the governor’s mansion is being countered by a heavily manipulated state legislature that has secured Republicans an impenetrable majority. Democrats thought they had a breakthrough in 2008 when Barack Obama won the state, Kay Hagan beat then-Senator Elizabeth Dole as an underdog candidate, and Ms. Beasley, then a former public defender and district judge, cruised to a seat in the elected . North Carolina Court of Appeals.

Then Mr. Obama narrowly fell to Mitt Romney in 2012. Ms. Hagan lost her re-election race in 2014 after leading Thom Tillis for months in the polls. Sir. Trump didn’t crack 50 percent, but still beat Hillary Clinton in 2016, and Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s ambitions for the Tarheel State fell short by more than a percentage point in 2020. That same year, a well-regarded Democrat. Senate candidate, Cal Cunningham, stumbled upon a sex scandal and crushed hope again.

The Beasley campaign is quick to note that she has won statewide — twice. But since she rode the wave in 2008, it hasn’t gotten any easier. After an appointment to the state’s highest court, Ms. Beasley a full term in 2014 with 5,400 votes after a recount. She lost her 2020 re-election by 401 votes, joining the ranks of the Democratic losers.

Mrs. Beasley’s bet this time is that in her evenly divided state, she can win in November by knocking out the Democratic vote. Her focus is the thriving counties surrounding Charlotte; the research triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill; and Greensboro. She also aims to cut into the overwhelming Republican advantage in more rural areas, particularly with black voters who are less likely to go to the polls. Her calling card is her judicial temperament: She is, she says, not a politician but a judgewho has held people accountable in North Carolina and would do the same in Washington.

But in a state where Sen. Jesse Helms once used blatantly racist advertising to crush a Democratic challenger, and as the super PAC aligned with Republican Party leadership, in the air attack Mrs. Beasley as a big-money lawyer, some Democrats want a little less balance and a little more brimstone.

State Sen. DeAndrea Salvador explained what’s at stake for Democrats: Gov. Roy Cooper, a Democrat, could lose his veto power if Republicans in the delicate Legislature gain just a few seats. “It’s time to stop worrying about being nice,” she said delicately, “and start thinking about being kind”—her diplomatic recipe for some tough love.

And the Rev. Walter L. Bowers, the pastor of Chosen City Church on the outskirts of Charlotte’s sprawl, said Ms. Beasley was “a wonderful person, but people need to see how tough she is.”

“When you have strong leaders who are not flamboyant, people mistake that for weakness,” he said.

Budd plays into those concerns, a backbench Republican with six quiet years in the House but the kind of bland appearance his party hopes can slide him into the Senate with minimal effort.

His record is not so tame. A gun shop owner outside of Winston-Salem, Mr. Budd secured the Senate nomination by winning the endorsement of Mr. Trump.

He did so in part questions the legitimacy of the 2020 election, voted against its certification and called the attack on the Capitol on January 6, 2021 “just patriots rising up.” Jonathan Felts, a campaign spokesman, is quick to note that Mr Budd also said that January 6 “was a bad day for America.”

“Ted has consistently criticized those who broke the law that day and called for full investigations and prosecutions of the rioters,” said Mr. Fields.

Mr. Budd’s campaign has declined to say whether he will accept the outcome of the November election, arguing without evidence that Ms Beasley could be trying to disenfranchise voters. Mr. Budd also opposed recent infrastructure and gun control bills that his state’s Republican senators supported.

Although Mr. Felt’s cited “Budd Crew Chiefs” in all 100 of the state’s counties and about 113 events and fundraisers, becoming Republican whispers of concern about Mr. Budd’s campaign is getting louder as he spends the final weeks of the campaign raising money behind him. behind closed doors, attend Congress and leave the task of earning votes largely to his advertising.

“He relies on ‘I’m not a liberal Democrat, I’m a generic Republican, vote for me,'” said Pope McCorkle, known as Mac, a longtime Democratic strategist now at Duke University’s Sanford School of Public Policy.

No one could blame Ms. Beasley for letting advertising do the work. On Friday, after two events in Greensboro, she rushed from a family pharmacy in Gastonia to a get-out-the-vote rally at the historically black Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte to the packed pep rally. The next morning, she started a round of procession outside Charlotte, stopping at the Fourth Ward Barber Shop, speaking at a work meeting and greeting canvassers in Matthews before heading, lunch in the car, to Rocky Mount for a full Sunday slate of appearances in the state rural northeast.

For all the talk about “purple” North Carolina, many political scientists say the number of true swing voters is small. The state is more of a patchwork of deep blue and deep red ramparts. Winning might be less about persuading swing voters than it is about bringing your team to power.

North Carolina lacks a metropolis like Atlanta has become in Georgia, southwest of here. Mr. McCorkle points to “national political” counties which calls for North Carolina’s largest cities, which have remained heavily white and Republican even as the far-flung suburbs of Atlanta have become diverse and politically fluid.

Mr. Trump beat Mr. Biden in these suburban areas of Carolina by a larger margin than he did in rural areas.

But Mr. McCorkle does not count Ms. Beasley with. North Carolina has traditionally been more liberal on abortion than much of the South, and with the legislature on the edge of a conservative supermajority, the issue will resonate. Last month, a federal judge allowed the reinstatement of one 20 week abortion ban. Mr. Budd has co-sponsored a 15-week abortion ban with no exceptions at the national level.

And North Carolinians have pushed back against conservative extremism when there was a sense that it had gone too far, as when Mr. Helms used the images of white hands saying that whites were losing their livelihoods to “racial quotas” and people of color.

Despite all his efforts to look bland, Mr. Budd will appear at a rally in Wilmington on Friday with Mr. Trump.

“Budd could rest on Trump’s laurels for the primary election. I’m not sure the strategy is effective for a general campaign,” Mr. Bitzer said.

To stay on her message, Ms. Beasley has to resist those in her party who want more fire. At Akers Pharmacy in Gastonia, she listened to constituents describe their struggles with diabetes, cancer, skyrocketing drug costs and fickle insurance companies.

Then DonnaMarie Woodson, a two-time cancer survivor and party activist, looked plaintively at her.

“I try not to be too controversial,” Ms. Woodson to Ms. Beasley before she went to bed. “Health insurance is a right and I will go down and fight for that and I know you will too. I know you will too.”

Mrs. Beasley smiled calmly, then expressed her gratitude to everyone she never said the words “Republican” or “Budd” or welcomed Ms. Woodson’s invitation. “You are not pieces of paper or documents,” she said. “This is truly, for you and your children, about saving lives.”

Afterwards, Ms. Woodson that she had tried to lure Ms. Beasley to a stronger reaction. She said she resigned after catching the candidate’s moves towards her.

“I didn’t want to open a can that she would be responsible for,” Ms. Woodson.