North Carolina Democrats hope former judge can stop Senate losing streak in pro-GOP environment

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“The number of independents is steadily declining,” said Doug Heye, a Washington-based Republican operative originally from North Carolina. “These people aren’t going to make up their minds until the last four weeks or so. So every poll will have it within the margin of error or close enough.”

Beasley, whose nomination follows decades of North Carolina Democrats choosing white Senate nominees, is counting on his non-politician profile and the strength of the abortion issue to attract more minority voters and suburban women. Budd, on the other hand, has tried to cast himself as a no-drama, generic Republican looking to ride the tide of discontent with President Joe Biden‘s management of the economy while avoiding unforced errors that has plagued GOP Senate candidates in other states. He will get a boost on Friday when Trump travels to the state for a meeting with Budd and other North Carolina Republicans.
Democrats are concerned that Budd will largely get a pass, despite the fact that he voted against confirming Biden’s 2020 election victory, and his campaign refused to say whether he would accept the results of 2022 midway. And by avoiding issues that have dogged the Republican Senate nominee in states like Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, he has so far escaped the national spotlight or any elevation of his more conservative positions.

Michael Bitzer, professor of politics at Catawba College, said Budd has “leaned on the basics.”

“Registered Republicans will have a higher turnout than Democrats, the midterm environment is generally against the president’s party,” Bitzer told CNN. “And I think he expects the fundamentals to be at work until November 8.”

“Voters don’t think judges are politicians”

Central to Beasley’s campaign is her title: Judge.

Her events and press releases are filled with references to her legal background. Attacking Budd for voting against legislation that would make it more difficult to overturn a presidential election, she said, “As a judge who has upheld the Constitution for over two decades, I will stand up to attacks on our democracy.” When South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham proposed a federal abortion ban earlier this month, Beasley hit it hard, noting that “as a judge for over two decades, I protected those constitutional rights, and I will not hesitate to vote to protect those freedoms in the United States Senate.”
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And her campaign rolled out an ad earlier this month that highlighted a number of Republican, independent and Democratic judges backing Beasley’s candidacy.

“As judges, our job is not about politics. It’s about standing up for what’s right,” say the judges on the spot.

“Voters don’t think judges are politicians,” said Morgan Jackson, a longtime Democratic strategist in North Carolina. “And what Beasley has been able to do on his campaign and his paid ads is say, ‘I’ve spent my career looking at an issue impartially and making a decision based on the law.’ voters crave in this environment of polarization.”

After graduating from the University of Tennessee College of Law in 1991, Beasley spent a few years as a public defender in Cumberland County, North Carolina, before working her way up the judicial ladder as a county district judge.

Beasley’s first run for statewide judicial office came in 2008 when she successfully ran for the North Carolina Court of Appeals. Four years later, Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue appointed her to the North Carolina Supreme Court, and Beasley successfully won a full term on the bench in 2014. Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper appointed its Supreme Court justice in 2019, making her the first black woman to serve in the position. And Beasley’s first run as a Democrat came in 2020, when she unsuccessfully sought a full term as chief justice, losing by just 401 votes.
Jackson said this background, combined with a focus on an issue like abortion, ie motivate Democrats across the country after overturning Roe v. Wade“opens a path for Beasley to swing voters and even some more moderate Republicans that Democrats haven’t had a chance to reach.”
Budd’s allies, in a sign that they recognize her appeal, have responded by tying Beasley to special interests and use her judicial decisions to claim she is soft on crime.

Republicans are hoping that this strategy — combined with concerns about complete Democratic control of Washington — can sink Beasley even as she runs a strong campaign.

“Here’s the problem for her, and this is the problem for Democrats across the board: Suburban-based unaffiliated voters are torn between the economy and between the social issues surrounding abortion,” said Paul Shumaker, a veteran Republican strategist in North Carolina. “The voters with whom Democrats have a turnout problem are minorities and young people, who are most affected by inflation.”

Beasley’s campaign has argued that as a history-making candidate she is uniquely positioned to turn out black voters statewide. A key aspect of this operation has been Beasley’s focus on getting rural black voters, many of whom are more likely to vote in presidential terms.

In a statement to CNN, Beasley’s campaign said she was focused on protecting the rights of “all North Carolinians, in every part of the state, in every political party.” The campaign, along with the Democratic coordinated campaign in the state, has prioritized black outreach through churches, historically black colleges and universities, and the “Divine Nine” historically black sororities and fraternities.

But Democrats have been here before in North Carolina — happy for a statewide candidate who appears well-positioned to win, only for that candidate to lose narrowly on Election Day. That includes 2020, when the Democratic Senate nominated Cal Cunningham was sunk by a sexting scandal. Democrats have not won a U.S. Senate election in the state since 2008.
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So far, the race has flown under the national radar, something that worries Democrats.

“What worries me is the fact that Budd right now, because he’s not Herschel Walker, because he’s not Blake Masters, because he’s not (Mehmet) Oz, and because he’s so quiet and has been in hiding , he’s just not getting that attention and that negative notoriety,” said a North Carolina Democratic operative close to the Beasley campaign, comparing Budd to the GOP Senate nominee in GeorgiaArizona and Pennsylvania.

The operator added, “Budd’s calculation is that I can ride this out and be quiet.”

“Sometimes boring and reliable is the way to win”

In Budd, North Carolina may have the closest candidate to a generic Republican.

The 50-year-old former gun owner, who was first elected to the House in 2016, represents a district that stretches up and down Interstate 85 and includes suburbs of both Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad regions. In Congress, he has aligned himself with Trump and pro-Trump The Freedom Meetingand achieves a conservative voting record, but not one distinguishable from other members of the Republican Conference.

Budd’s low-key approach to his Senate bid is seen as an asset in a large and politically divided state like North Carolina.

“Sometimes boring and reliable is the way to win,” said one person close to the campaign.

It’s also something of a necessity for Budd, who has raised far less money than Beasley — the Democrat had raised about $16 million through June 30, compared to about $6.3 million for Budd. That limited his campaign’s television presence, a space Beasley dominated throughout most of the summer.

Budd has since received help from outside groups, including the National Republican Senatorial Committee. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, booked $27.6 million in TV ads between Labor Day and Election Day.

Bid first election advertisement for TV — which was paid for by the NRSC — shows the congressman at a grocery store, blaming “Biden’s reckless spending” for “record inflation crushing working-class families in North Carolina.”

In addition to these well-funded pitches to undecided voters, Budd will need to hit the ground running with the Republican base. He will have help in that effort when Trump arrives in Wilmington on Friday for a meeting with him and a number of other Republican candidates in the state.

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But Trump’s visit is hardly without risk for Budd. Democrats hope the former president injecting himself further into the race will remind swing voters of the 2020 election and anger at the political climate that followed. And Trump’s return to North Carolina will help Democrats highlight Budd’s votes against affirming certain 2020 presidential results.

Budd has also tried to moderate his tone and positions on other issues that put him at odds with voters in the middle, especially abortion. Earlier this year, Budd told television station WRAL that he opposes abortion and suggested that he might oppose exceptions even if the mother’s life is at risk. That has made it attack ads from Democratic groups, including one from the Senate Majority PAC that accuses Budd of supporting legislation “that could criminalize abortion for women and put North Carolina doctors in prison.”

Republicans watching the race told CNN that Budd’s recent co-sponsorship of a 15-week abortion ban, which is less unpopular than a total ban, may help him appear less extreme on abortion — or at least nullify Democratic attacks . But it is a delicate act, they admit.

“How Republicans handle that one issue alone will determine whether they have a good year,” Shumaker said.

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