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Budd-Beasley battle for Senate in North Carolina stays tight

Democrat hasn't won Tar Heel State seat in 14 years

Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley dances as she takes the stage for her campaign rally with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., at Harding University High School in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday.
Democratic U.S. Senate candidate Cheri Beasley dances as she takes the stage for her campaign rally with Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., at Harding University High School in Charlotte, N.C., on Saturday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — The race for North Carolina’s open Senate seat between Republican Rep. Ted Budd and former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, a Democrat, has so far stayed consistently tight.

In a midterm election year when conventional wisdom suggests that Republicans are poised to win seats, Beasley is trying to keep her momentum heading into the final weeks of the campaign, while Republicans are hopeful Budd is pulling ahead. Democrats haven’t won a Senate seat in the Tar Heel state since 2008, while Republicans need to hold onto the seat in an effort to win back control of the Senate. 

“Taking into account all of the basic midterm election dynamics we think of, this should be an advantage Republican race. I think it still is, but the margin is just really tight,” Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., said. “Whether the polls are accurate depictions of that snapshot in time or whether something will break, potentially to help the Republicans build a little bit of a cushion by Nov. 8, we’ll just have to kind of wait and see.”

A poll of likely voters released Monday from East Carolina University found Budd up 50 percent to 44 percent, with 5 percent undecided. That was a 3-point improvement for Budd since last month. But other polls released over the last few weeks showed Budd with either a slight lead or a tied race, and the polling average Tuesday on had Budd up 2.1 points. Inside Elections with Nathan L. Gonzales rates the race as Tilt Republican. 

Budd and Beasley are both leaning into the issues that their party is betting will prove most consequential this election. At a pair of county Republican gatherings in the eastern part of the state last Friday night, Budd brought up the economy and crime, as well as the importance of school board races and parental rights. He touted endorsements from law enforcement groups and conversations he had with Border Patrol officers. 

North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd, the Republican nominee for U.S. Senate, speaks at the Pamlico County GOP Turkey Dinner at Pamlico Community College in Grantsboro, N.C., on Friday. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call)

“This is about getting our country back on the right track because everything that Cheri Beasley would do would be a rubber stamp for Joe Biden, which would hurt us right now,” Budd said. “It’s hurt families when it comes to inflation, when it comes to crime, when it comes to education. She’s a rubber stamp for all the policies that have gotten us in trouble on every single one of those issues.”

The next day, Beasley was campaigning with New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker in Charlotte, visiting a canvass launch and a barbershop before a rally in a high school gym. She emphasized abortion rights and Budd’s opposition to recently passed laws to expand veterans health care, fund semiconductor factories and lower insulin costs. 

“He’s been in Congress for six years, so we don’t have to wonder what he would do. We’ve already been able to see what he won’t do,” Beasley said about Budd at the rally.

Bitzer said Beasley has used the June Supreme Court decision overturning the right to an abortion to energize and mobilize Democrats, although recent polls have shown that voters say inflation and the economy are a bigger priority, and those issues favor Republicans. 

“All Democrats want that to continue to be at the forefront, but when you have gas prices, grocery prices, you know, the continued mood of the country and probably the mood of this state, you know, can [issues such as abortion rights] overcome that baked-in dynamic?” Bitzer said. 

Crime is another issue at play in the race, as Republicans have criticized Beasley for certain state Supreme Court decisions.

Millions flow in

With less than three weeks until Election Day and early voting beginning Thursday, outside groups are spending millions here to define the candidates. On Monday, the National Federation of Independent Business Federal Political Action Committee launched a radio and digital ad campaign supporting Budd, while the Human Rights Campaign Equality Votes PAC launched a digital ad campaign supporting Beasley.

Beasley reported raising $13.4 million in the third quarter and had $3.3 million on hand as of Sept. 30, according to Federal Election Commission filings. Budd, meanwhile, raised $4.8 million and had $2.9 million on hand.

Beasley’s fundraising success allowed her to be on air throughout the summer at lower ad rates that campaigns pay compared to outside groups.

That gave Beasley a chance to run several positive ads and push back on attacks from groups including the National Republican Senatorial Committee and Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC with ties to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell

Since the primary in May, SLF has spent $24.9 million and the NRSC spent another $5 million on ads opposing Beasley, according to filings with the FEC. 

“SLF jumped into the North Carolina Senate race early and we are aggressively litigating Cheri Beasley’s soft-on-crime judicial record,” Jack Pandol, the communications director for SLF, said in a statement. “As Democrats point fingers at one another over this race, Ted Budd is charging ahead with a smart and disciplined campaign on issues North Carolinians care about — which is why he’s well-positioned to win.”

Senate Majority PAC, a super PAC linked to Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, has reported spending $2 million for ads supporting Beasley and $6 million opposing Budd, but it has said it is committed to spending $15 million. A recent ad argued Budd is too extreme on abortion. 

“Cheri Beasley’s strong campaign and record of independence and integrity has made this race more competitive by the day, which is why National Republicans are being forced to burn through precious resources to distract from Ted Budd’s extreme record,” SMP President J.B. Poersch said in a statement. “Our investments will ensure that voters continue to see and hear the truth about Ted Budd’s self-serving agenda to benefit himself at North Carolina’s expense all the way through to Election Day.”

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