Sep 19, 2022 - Politics

The closest Senate race in America that nobody's watching

Photo illustration of Cheri Beasley tinted blue, and Ted Budd tinted red, separated by a white halftone divider.
Photo illustration: Axios Visuals. Photos: Sean Rayford and Melissa Sue Gerrits/Getty Images

North Carolina’s U.S. Senate race is the most competitive in the country just two months out from Election Day, polling averages show

  • But it’s hardly creating a frenzy of excitement.

Why it matters: While outside groups and national parties prioritize states like Georgia and Pennsylvania — where celebrity candidates with big personalities drum up national headlines daily — North Carolina could quietly determine the balance of power in the Senate. 

  • But the lack of energy, ads and controversy raise the prospect of a lower turnout in November, however. And in a state with more unaffiliated voters than Democrats or Republicans, it's more difficult to judge the direction of the wind.

“If you'd have told me a year ago that this was going to be a sleepy race, I would’ve said we're in real trouble,” said Democratic political operative Morgan Jackson, who supports Cheri Beasley and believes she’s in position to win. “That’s not how we win these races.” 

What’s happening: Beasley and Republican Ted Budd are vying to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Richard Burr with more low-key, grassroots campaigns emphasizing local issues over national ones.

  • They’ve done small town halls and gathered at barbecue restaurants, but this has hardly been the race of dueling rallies.
  • Axios partner Engagious/Schlesinger recently gathered 11 swing voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and Biden in 2020. Eight of 11 saw a picture of Beasley and said they could name her, while only 4 of 11 said they could name Budd.

Flashback: This race is a major shift from from two years ago, when all eyes were on North Carolina as sitting U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis and Democrat Cal Cunningham staged what was the most expensive Senate race in U.S. history. 

  • That race included an October bombshell that Cunningham was sexting a woman who wasn’t his wife. 

State of play: Beasley, the former chief justice of the state supreme court, has previously only run for judicial seats in her career. 

  • She’s modest and reserved even at her own events as her campaign’s traveled to all 100 counties. In recent weeks she’s launched a series of “Common Sense Connections” campaign events meant to highlight her independence and ability to float above partisan politics. 

Budd is a sitting Republican congressman, who, after President Donald Trump unexpectedly endorsed him last summer, became the frontrunner in the U.S. Senate Republican primary. 

  • His campaign lobbed attack after attack in a fiery primary against former Gov. Pat McCrory. In response, McCrory attempted to paint Budd as an extremist akin to Madison Cawthorn, while pointing to Budd’s vote against certifying the results of the 2020 election. 
  • Budd won the primary by 34 percentage points.
  • His campaign took a much quieter turn after that.

The intrigue: Republicans and Democrats argue the quieter nature of this race compared compared to other Senate contests has benefited their candidate. 

  • Republicans tell Axios that Budd’s head-down, don’t-rock-the-boat campaign strategy has been the right one for the moment, in a year that, by all accounts, looks favorable for their party.

“Budd has a much broader path to victory than Beasley,” strategist Paul Shumaker, who worked on Budd’s primary opponent’s campaign, told Axios. Shumaker sent out a memo recently expressing concern that the Dobbs decision could motivate Democrats. “Her [Beasley’s] path is much more narrow, but if she can radicalize him on the abortion ban, then she has a viable shot with suburban-based unaffiliated women.”. 

The other side: Jackson, the Democratic political operative, argues that Beasley has been able to control her own message, and tell her own story, with national attention focused on other states. 

But, but but: The spice may be thrown on the race soon. 

  • Trump’s visit to Wilmington Friday could add more momentum to Budd’s campaign. 
  • On the other side, Democrats are optimistic President Biden’s approval is ticking up, and that women voters motivated to defend abortion rights will increase momentum behind Beasley. 

The bottom line: This race is going to be close right to the end no matter what either candidate does, because that’s simply the nature of statewide elections in North Carolina these days.

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