North Carolina’s Overlooked Senate Race

North Carolina’s Overlooked Senate Race

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Next month, in the midterm elections, Democrats will try to protect their edge in an evenly divided Senate. Most of the media coverage has focussed on several states: Pennsylvania, the Democrats’ best pickup opportunity; Georgia and Nevada, where Democratic incumbents face tight races; and Arizona, where the Republican challenger Blake Masters has struggled to overcome a history of controversial statements. North Carolina, where polls show an essentially tied contest, has flown under the radar. Running to occupy the seat held by the retiring Republican Richard Burr are Ted Budd, a Republican congressman, and Cheri Beasley, a Democrat and the former Chief Justice of the state’s Supreme Court.

To learn more about the race, I called Michael Bitzer, a professor at Catawba College, in Salisbury, North Carolina, and an expert on the state’s politics. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, we discussed North Carolina’s changing demographics and what they portend, how Budd has been able to avoid some of the usual stumbles made by Trump-identified Republicans, and why the state keeps disappointing Democrats.

What is interesting to you about this race, and why do you think that it’s been under-discussed in this election cycle?

Compared to past U.S. Senate contests in the state, it has very much been a sleeper race. The candidates certainly fit the mold of what a successful Republican and Democrat can be in this state. Past elections here have generally tended to favor Republicans, particularly in midterms. And I think national Democrats wonder why they should put in as much as they have in the past, to come up with the same outcome. There are also a variety of things in states like Georgia, Pennsylvania, and others that are garnering greater attention, because maybe the candidates are a little flashier in style. But North Carolina’s going to be as competitive as any of those states.

What makes you say that the candidates fit a successful mold?

Ted Budd is the Trump candidate, and in this state Trumpism has a pretty significant hold on the Republican Party. I would simply point to the fact that when Burr voted guilty in the second impeachment, the state Party censured him. If you take Ted Budd’s numbers in the primary and combine them with the totals for Mark Walker, who was also seeking to be the Trump candidate, you’ve got two-thirds of the Republican primary electorate voting for Trump candidates. The one candidate not as closely associated with Donald Trump was the former governor, Pat McCrory, who only got twenty-five per cent of the vote. The Party organization and its base of voters are very much behind Donald Trump, and they got their Trump candidate. What we also know is that, in North Carolina, registered Republicans will generally have the highest turnout rate of any of the three major registration groups.

In other purple states, we’ve seen Trumpy candidates win the nomination, and actually put those seats in danger because they’ve gone too extreme. What is Budd doing that is different? I will say, as someone who’s following the race nationally, he’s not making headlines with crazy statements, the way other Republicans are.

A Herschel Walker, or Blake Masters. It’s a very deliberate slide below the radar. Budd’s campaign has primarily been through TV ads and small public events that very few reporters know about, or attend. When you’re doing a stealth campaign, relying on the fundamentals, and letting your TV ads be your main conduit, you can fly below the radar and be restrained enough not to say anything out of the mainstream that will call attention to you.

I don’t want to suggest that he is not saying anything extreme, because I know he’s had some trouble talking about the last election and it’s supposed fairness. How has he dealt with that?

He was actually confronted with that at the debate on Friday night, and he acknowledged that Joe Biden won. But he has always framed his concerns as driven by the Constitution. When you press him on that, on what those constitutional concerns mean, what he’s saying is that some states changed their laws, or changed their rules, in the middle of the game.

He still voted against certification. But this has not attracted as much attention, because it’s an acknowledged part of Trump Republican Party politics. And Budd has been very restrained in his approach. Yes, he’s willing to go out and toe the Republican line on a lot of policy issues. He’s done ads on the immigration crisis, as he describes it. But I think he’s been very circumspect in terms of going too far out there, making wild accusations and statements, as other candidates have done. I would almost describe it as a restrained campaign strategy—they’re running on the premise that this is a Republican-advantage year, and they’re going to take advantage of that dynamic.

And what about Beasley?

Beasley has run the campaign that she needs to run to be competitive in this state. She’s having to thread a very small needle to have a shot. She is not a wild, liberal progressive. She is a classic moderate, centrist Democratic candidate of the type that tends to do well statewide, and can win. You simply have to look at 2020 and see Trump and [Senator] Thom Tillis winning at the top of the ballot—the Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, was able to win in that same environment. Beasley’s strategy has been to mirror his kind of centrist approach. She has the style of a former judge. She’s very reserved in how she approaches things. In the debate on Friday night, she was a little wobbly, because she didn’t want to go too aggressive—as opposed to Budd, who was very aggressive at the beginning.

But, by the midpoint of the debate, she found her footing—she started to become the politician that she needed to be. She has run a very smart campaign, in that she was on the air constantly through the summer, and that allowed her to frame herself and not let the Republicans frame her. She’s had significant fund-raising prowess in this state by the very nature of her historic candidacy. North Carolina has never had an African American woman in the U.S. Senate. The biggest hurdle that she has to overcome is that fundamental midterm dynamic of the President’s party not typically picking up seats. If anything is holding her back, it’s pretty much out of her control.

Right, and all these states where Democrats are competitive—such as Pennsylvania, Georgia, and Arizona—have these really bad Republican candidates. That’s true in a lot of House races, too. So it seems as if she has a tough hill to climb.

You always have to think about midterms as unique creatures in the election cycle. Presidential-term elections are one thing, but midterms have been pretty steady and consistent. Yes, there is the 2002 dynamic. Yes, there is the 1998 dynamic. Those are the rare exceptions.

In 2002, Republicans did well in the aftermath of 9/11, and in 1998 Democrats did better than expected, post-impeachment, right?

That’s exactly what I mean. But every other midterm plays the same set of cards. Members of the President’s party just have to make the best of the situation. Now, can the other side give them some advantages? Most definitely.

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