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

By Dan Merica and Michael Warren, CNN

The race for North Carolina’s open Senate seat features two leading candidates who have taken opposing paths in their bids for higher office.

Democrat Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to be a major-party Senate nominee in North Carolina, has served for two decades as a judge and state Supreme Court justice, positions she has used to distance herself from politics-as-usual. Her candidacy has given Democrats hope in a state that former President Donald Trump carried twice, though even the most upbeat members of her party acknowledge she faces long odds.

Republican Ted Budd, by comparison, has a familiar political résumé — going from owning a small business to winning a seat in the US House of Representatives to seeking statewide office. Aided by a Trump endorsement in the primary, Budd is now running what Republicans believe is a cautious campaign, largely relying on the state’s red tilt and a favorable national environment for his party.

With control of the evenly divided Senate on the line, the differences between the candidates reflect the parties’ divergent theories on how to win in North Carolina. Like many recent statewide contests, the race is expected to be tight, operatives from both sides acknowledge, with both Beasley and Budd trying to appeal to the minute, but crucial, sliver of persuadable voters while also mobilizing the party bases.

“The number of independents is ever-shrinking,” said Doug Heye, a Washington-based Republican operative originally from North Carolina. “Those folks are not going to decide until the last four weeks or so. So every poll is going to have it within the margin of error or close enough.”

Beasley, whose nomination follows decades of North Carolina Democrats picking White nominees for Senate, is counting on her non-politician profile and the potency of the abortion issue to attract more minority voters and suburban women. Budd, on the other hand, has tried to run as a no-drama, generic Republican, seeking to ride the current of dissatisfaction with President Joe Biden‘s stewardship of the economy while avoiding unforced errors that have plagued GOP Senate candidates in other states. Budd received a boost Friday, when Trump traveled to Wilmington for a rally with the Senate hopeful and other North Carolina Republicans. Speaking for more than an hour, the former President praised Budd’s introduction of a 2019 bill to enable victims of crimes committed by undocumented immigrants to sue sanctuary cities if the crime occurred in their jurisdiction, describing “Great Ted” as a reliable “America First” Republican.

“Ted, you’re not losing, I can tell you that. You’re not going to be losing,” Trump said.

His appearance came hours after Trump allies confirmed to CNN that the former President has launched a new super PAC aimed at boosting candidates like Budd, who received endorsements in the primary and are now facing tight general election contests, ahead of the November midterm election. The new group, MAGA Inc., is expected to start spending on ads and get-out-the-vote efforts as early as next week.

Democrats are worried Budd is largely getting a pass, despite voting against certifying Biden’s 2020 electoral victory and his campaign declining to say whether he would accept the results of the 2022 midterms. And by avoiding issues that have hampered Republican Senate nominees in states such as Pennsylvania, Georgia and Arizona, he has so far escaped the national glare or any elevation of his more conservative positions.

Michael Bitzer, a politics professor at Catawba College, said Budd has been “leaning on the fundamentals.”

“Registered Republicans will have a higher turnout rate than Democrats, the midterm environment is generally against the President’s party,” Bitzer told CNN. “And I think he is counting on those fundamentals to stay 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 littered with references to her judicial background. When she attacked Budd for voting against legislation that would make it harder to overturn a presidential election, she said, “As a judge who upheld the Constitution for over two decades, I will stand up against attacks on our democracy.” When South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham proposed a federal abortion ban earlier this month, Beasley slammed it, noting that “as a judge for over two decades I protected these constitutional rights, and I will not hesitate to vote to protect these freedoms in the U.S. Senate.”

And her campaign rolled out an ad earlier this month that highlighted a slew 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,” the judges say in 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 her campaign and her paid ads is say, ‘I have spent my career looking unbiased at an issue and making a decision based on law.’ That is something voters are craving in this environment of polarization.”

But Trump sought to wield Beasley’s background against her in his appearance Friday, accusing her of letting violent criminals off the hook with lenient sentences and supporting court-packing at the Supreme Court level by calling for the Senate filibuster to be abolished.

“She was a Marxist radical,” Trump said Friday, claiming that Beasley “has vowed to be the 50th vote to abolish the Senate filibuster.”

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 district court judge in the county.

Beasley’s first run for a statewide judicial position 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 named her chief justice of the high court 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, coupled with a focus on an issue like abortion that is motivating Democrats across the country after the overturning of Roe v. Wade, “opens up an avenue for Beasley to swing voters and even some more moderate Republicans that Democrats have not 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 using her judicial decisions to allege that she is soft on crime.

Republicans are hopeful that this strategy — coupled with concerns about all-Democratic control of Washington — could sink Beasley, even if she is running a strong campaign.

“Here’s the problem for her, and this is the problem for Democrats across the board: Suburban-based unaffiliated voters are split between the economy and between the social issues around abortion,” said Paul Shumaker, a veteran Republican strategist in North Carolina. “The voters Democrats have a turnout problem with 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 across the state. A key aspect to this operation has been Beasley’s focus on turning out rural Black voters, many of whom are more likely to vote in presidential cycles.

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, of 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 — buoyant about a statewide candidate appearing well positioned to win, only for that candidate to narrowly lose on Election Day. That includes 2020, when Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham was sunk by a sexting scandal. Democrats haven’t won a US Senate election in the state since 2008.

So far, the race has flown under the national radar, something that concerns Democrats.

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

The operative added: “Budd’s calculation is I can ride this out and stay 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 range owner, who was first elected to the House in 2016, represents a district that stretches up and down Interstate 85 and encompasses suburbs of both the Charlotte and the Piedmont Triad regions. In Congress, he has aligned himself with Trump and the pro-Trump Freedom Caucus, acquiring 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 split state like North Carolina.

“Sometimes boring and reliable is the way to win,” said a 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 with around $6.3 million for Budd. That limited his campaign’s presence on the TV airwaves, a space Beasley dominated through much 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, reserved $27.6 million in TV ads between Labor Day and Election Day.

Budd’s first general-election ad for TV — which was paid for by the NRSC — features the congressman in a grocery store, blaming “Biden’s reckless spending” for “record inflation that’s crushing working families in North Carolina.”

In addition to these well-funded pitches to undecided voters, Budd will need to run up the numbers with the Republican base, something Trump aimed to help with during Friday’s rally.

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

Budd has also attempted to moderate his tone and stances on other issues that put him at odds with voters in the middle, particularly abortion. Earlier this year, Budd told TV station WRAL that he opposes abortion and suggested that he could oppose exceptions even if the life of the mother is in danger. That has made it into attack ads from Democratic groups, including one from Senate Majority PAC that accuses Budd of backing legislation “that could criminalize abortion for women and put North Carolina doctors in jail.”

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, can help him appear less extreme on abortion — or, at the very least, nullify the Democratic attacks. But it’s a delicate act, they admit.

“How Republicans manage that one issue alone determines whether they have a good year,” said Shumaker.

The-CNN-Wire
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CNN’s Gabby Orr contributed to this report.

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