Raleigh, N.C. — Cheri Beasley, the Democratic frontrunner in the race for North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat, is placing a big bet that moderate positions will win over voters in what could be among the most expensive and competitive races in the country this November.
The former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice became her party’s presumptive nominee about five months ago after her top opponents dropped out. She has since embraced the glidepath to the nomination and thinks her progressive-but-not-too-progressive strategy will garner wider appeal than the hardline conservative frontrunner in the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd.
While 10 other Democrats are still running in the May 17 primary, Beasley had almost $3.3 million in the bank on April 27—110 times more than those candidates combined. Her almost sure-shot position has enabled her to focus on the general election without having to endure an intraparty battle such as the one playing out on the Republican side, where Budd and former Gov. Pat McCrory are spending hefty sums attacking one another ahead of the May 17 primary.
“We’ve been able to really provide the infrastructure for a good ground game and a solid plan for the general election, so we’re feeling very well prepared,” Beasley told WRAL’s “On the Record.”
In a state with almost equal numbers of Democratic, Republican and unaffiliated voters, Beasley has been careful not to appear further to the left ideologically.
On the campaign trail, she has been critical of her own party. She has also skipped recent visits to North Carolina made by President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris—absences that have been seen by some political observers as an effort to create separation from an unpopular president. Beasley says scheduling conflicts prevented her from attending.
“Democrats certainly get credit for making sure to address Covid-19 and making measures available [and] also in passing the bipartisan infrastructure legislation,” Beasley said. “But at a time when so many people are struggling, [voters] really do want more and they want to feel some imminent relief right now.”
Beasley supports eliminating the filibuster—the 60-vote threshold required in the U.S. Senate for most legislation, unlike some moderate members of her party. She opposes expanding the number of justices on the U.S. Supreme, which is supported by more liberal Democrats. And unlike many in her party, Beasley hasn’t said whether she’d forgive any amount of college student loan debt.
She does, however, support a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy, which is in line with her party, most Americans and a plurality of North Carolinians, according to public opinion polls.
Abortion a mobilizing issue for both parties
Among the most animating issues for voters in November could be abortion, which was brought to the political forefront Monday after a leaked U.S. Supreme Court opinion showed a majority of justices appearing ready to overturn Roe v. Wade.
The landmark 1973 opinion made abortion legal nationwide during a woman’s first trimester. If it is overturned, some states could impose stricter abortion limits or outlaw the medical procedure altogether. For North Carolina, restrictions could include the reinstatement of a defunct 1973 law that banned abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy.
A federal appeals court last year ruled that North Carolina’s ban on abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy was unconstitutional. The 20-week ban, which a lower court struck down in 2019, was first passed in 1973.
“If I were in the United States Senate today, I would work hard to codify Roe v. Wade,” Beasley said. “This is a constitutional right.”
The issue is a sensitive subject for many voters.
A Meredith College survey released Tuesday found that 53% of registered North Carolina voters want to see a law to expand or keep in place the current provisions of the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling that legalized abortion nationwide. Meanwhile, 39% of voters prefer a law that severely restricts access to abortion or makes it illegal in all circumstances.
A recent WRAL News online survey found a plurality of registered voters would oppose new abortion limits. The poll conducted from April 6 to 10 showed 57% of Democratic voters wanting to reduce restrictions or keep in place existing laws, while one-fourth of Democrats supported more restriction or a total ban. Meanwhile, 62% of North Carolina Republicans wanted more abortion restrictions or an outlawing of the procedure, while 26% favored fewer restrictions or no new restrictions. The poll reported a margin of error of 2.7 percentage points.
Careful messaging from Democrats and Republicans will be required for the parties seeking to mobilize voters while simultaneously not turning potential supporters with conflicting views.
Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College political scientist, said an overturned Supreme Court decision on Roe v. Wade would represent a victory for Republicans who have fought for such a decision over the past 50 years. But he also said it could ignite newfound energy among Democrats.
“This case may be the wake up call for Democrats to realize that same kind of energy and enthusiasm,” Bitzer said. “We may have both sides highly energized and highly motivated to show up to vote.”
Beasley portrayed top Republicans vying for the seat of retiring GOP U.S. Sen. Richard Burr as too extreme on abortion.
“In this election, the Republicans all support some kind of restrictions or ban on abortions, even in the cases of rape, incest or when there’s danger to the mother’s health,” Beasley said. “I think that speaks in so many ways to why this election is so important.”
McCrory, Budd’s top opponent, supports abortion in limited instances. The exceptions for him are rape, incest or cases where a woman’s life is at risk. Budd has voiced his concerns about abortion on the campaign trail, suggesting in interviews it shouldn’t be permitted under any circumstances. Former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker, a GOP competitor who is ideologically similar to Budd, has expressed similar views.
Beasley bolstered by divided GOP
Beasley entered the U.S. Senate race on the heels of a narrow defeat in her 2020 state Supreme Court reelection bid. Of the nearly 5.4 million ballots cast, she lost the contest to Republican Paul Newby by 401 votes.
As Beasley steers toward the general election this year, the battle for the GOP ticket goes on. And as Republicans attack each other over the airwaves, Beasley sees her largely unchallenged Democratic position strengthening.
As of April 27, her available cash was three times greater than the nearly $1.1 million the GOP frontrunner, Budd, had, according to the latest campaign filings. Beasley has also benefited from an extra five months of preparing for the November general election.
Former state Sen. Erica Smith, who had once presented herself as the most liberal candidate in the Democratic primary race, dropped out in November. And Beasley’s top primary opponent, state Sen. Jeff Jackson, left the Senate race in December.
Jackson, who is now running for a Charlotte-area congressional seat, said the clear path in the Democratic primary gives Beasley an advantage ahead of the general election.
“Beasley has the edge because the Republican primary was so divisive,” Jackson said. “Any strong Republican who watched the Democratic primary and the Republican primary wishes that they had been reversed.”
The Republican primary has been filled with attack ads, outside spending and allegations of debate-dodging.
Budd has benefited from Club for Growth Action, an influential political action committee that has spent more than $10 million on Budd’s primary prospects, according to campaign finance filings. The spending includes an array of ads attacking McCrory — messages that the former governor calls “deceitful.”
McCrory has attacked Budd’s decision to duck all the GOP primary debates and welcome Club for Growth’s spending.
Regardless, Budd has surged in the polls, but McCrory insists the race is far from over.
“We know we have to catch up, especially in the more rural areas. … But we definitely think we have a very good chance of winning this primary race and then moving on and winning the general election,” McCrory told reporters on Tuesday.
Budd’s campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests for interviews. Although Budd’s attention is still on the primary, he appears to be increasingly focused on a likely general election matchup against Beasley.
In a news release on Thursday, Budd’s campaign said Beasley “is desperately trying to separate herself from Joe Biden.”
Economy, education key priorities for Democrats
The political party in power has traditionally struggled to retain majorities during elections in which the president is not on the ballot, which could hurt Beasley in the general election.
After a year of Democratic control of the White House and Congress, Republicans are expected to gain ground in the U.S. House and U.S. Senate.
While Biden signed a sweeping infrastructure bill and a string of spending measures that helped individuals and businesses get through the worst stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, Americans have been saddled with rising housing, fuel and food costs.
Brigette Gathings, a Democrat who voted in her party’s primary, said in an interview on Wednesday outside a northeastern Raleigh grocery store that she was dissatisfied with the direction of the country. She said she used stimulus checks to help pay her student loan bills and is upset Democrats haven’t implemented a college debt relief or loan forgiveness program.
She also noted billions have been spent to assist Ukraine in the country’s fight to defend itself from Russia at a time when she hasn’t personally felt immediate financial relief.
“Right now, my concern is the food prices out here,” Gathings said. “It’s just getting hard to buy food. It’s getting hard to eat and all I see is all of our money going over there. I’m not saying we can’t help, but we’ve got problems here.”
Gathings questioned whether Biden is governing too conservatively. A WRAL poll showed 42% of North Carolina voters approving of the president’s job performance and 55% disapproving.
Beasley pinned some of the blame on companies for inflated prices and said she’d work to raise corporate taxes to remedy what she described as “price gouging.”
“I would first of all hold corporations accountable,” Beasley said. “The ones who are raising prices, flagrantly price gouging at a time when people are suffering, I would indeed impose some price gouging tax on those corporations to hold them accountable.”
Beasley said she would work to make college loan terms more transparent and easier to refinance but declined to say whether she’d support any direct financial relief.
“We just really need to talk more about it and see how reducing or forgiving some of those loans really impacts the economy,” she said.
Bizter, the Catawba College political scientist, said it remains to be seen how successful Democrats will be under a political climate more favorable to the GOP.
“The electoral dynamics [and] the fundamentals that we as political scientists view points to a good Republican year,” Bitzer said. “The question is how good will it be. I think we’ll just have to wait to see what the fall brings in terms of other issues that may confront the voters and candidates.”
WRAL anchor/reporter Lena Tillett contributed to this article.