OXFORD, NORTH CAROLINA — It’s a marvel Cheri Beasley made it here at all, to this drafty barn, off of a winding country road in rural North Carolina. Her handlers had the wrong address, the cell service was spotty, the two-lane road you take to get here was shut down in one direction for re-paving. But the campaign’s SUV rolled up the long gravel driveway, past pert rows of kale, just a couple minutes behind schedule. The former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court hopped out at the first in a long list of stops she’s making today as she hopscotches across North Carolina, searching for enough votes to make her the state’s first Black U.S. Senator.
You wouldn’t normally find a Democrat running for national office here in Granville County. In the past, Democrats seeking national office in North Carolina have stuck to a familiar playbook: run up the margins in the urban centers and just try to staunch the bleeding in rural areas. Beasley’s campaign is breaking from that tradition, operating under the belief that black North Carolinians, who make up a large share of the state’s rural voters, can help her reverse the recent trend against Democrats in this state.
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Dorathy and Phillip Barker have owned this farm, which raises beef cattle, since 1981, and managed to hang on to the land despite an almost biblical series of unfortunate events. First there was a drought, then half of their cows died after the herd was infected with Anaplasmosis and the whole farm had to be quarantined for six months. Not long after that, Phillip broke his neck trying to build a barn. The Barkers went into debt, their efforts to access loans that should have been available to them through the USDA’s Farm Services Administration failed, and eventually they were forced to sell all but 20 of their original 300 acres.
The USDA has since admitted to discriminatory lending practices that disadvantaged black farmers like the Barkers in the eighties and nineties, and there have been efforts to address the lingering effects of that discrimination: a class action settlement (one of the largest civil rights settlements ever at the time) in 1999, and more recent legislation like the Emergency Debt Relief for Farmers of Color Act, which passed Congress last year.
Rep. Ted Budd, running against Beasley for Senate, voted against that legislation and, even more controversially in a state where agriculture is still the number one industry, he voted against the five-year farm bill as well. Michigan Sen. Debbie Stabenow, chair of the agriculture committee, out stumping with Beasley today, blinks in disbelief as she recounts the fact that 369 members of the House voted for the bill. Budd was one of just 47 members to oppose it. “We had 87 members of the Senate out of 100 — you don’t get that vote on anything because it’s bipartisan,” Stabenow exclaims. “And yet her opponent voted no! I could not believe that.” Beasley shook her head, murmuring almost under her breath: “He calls himself a farmer!”
Before I go any further it must be said: Beasley is not the most quotable candidate on the campaign trail this year. She might even be the least quotable candidate running for Senate. A former judge, she speaks in measured tones, more often in paragraphs than soundbites. She is thoughtful and circumspect, disciplined, relentlessly on message. Which, of course, is what one would want in someone responsible for running the government, even if it is not what voters have been accustomed to lately, with our gaffe-prone current president or his stream-of-conscious spewing predecessor. In a field chock full of superficial celebrity hucksters Mehmet Oz and Herschel Walker, Beasley is, refreshingly, all substance and very little flash.
That lack of flash might be part of the reason why this race remained under the radar — largely ignored by the national media and un-prioritized by the national parties — for so much of this campaign season even as it has remained as competitive as higher profile match-ups in states like Ohio and Nevada. In polls dating as far back as early June, Beasley and Budd have been locked in a statistical dead heat. In the meantime, she has outraised him nearly 3-to-1, raking in $34.3 million to his $12.6 million.
It’s also possible that national Democrats ignored this race early on because North Carolina has been the site of bitter disappointments for them in recent years: They have lost four straight Senate races here. The last was in 2020, a contest most election forecasters agreed Democrats were favored to win. The party poured millions into that race. Unfortunately for them, their candidate, a generic, single-term state senator named Cal Cunningham, was caught sexting with his political strategist 100 days out from the election. He lost, unsurprisingly. By that time, the race had become the most expensive Senate contest in history, with more than $270 million spent by the campaigns and by outside groups combined.
Beasley is a stronger candidate than Cunningham: She’s run three statewide campaigns for state Supreme Court, winning two of them in years that other Democrats struggled, like 2014 when they lost control of their last Senate seat. In her third race in 2020, she fell short by just 401 votes; President Biden, meanwhile, lost the state by 11,000. That crossover appeal is crucial in North Carolina, where the largest share of voters are not Republican or Democrat, but unaffiliated voters, who outnumber registrants of both parties. Beasley, who spent the majority of her career as a nonpartisan judge, can credibly appeal to that segment of the electorate. “They are not at all engaged or inspired by the pettiness of partisan politics,” Beasley told me of the voters she’s met with this campaign.
The Democratic Party may have dragged its heels getting into this race (the Senate Majority PAC made two last-minute cash infusions of $4 million each in October, bringing its total outlay to $22 million; in 2020, by contrast, it had reserved more than $25 million worth of airtime in the state as early as March). But outside organizations saw early potential in Beasley. She was the first non-incumbent EMILY’s List endorsed this election cycle. The pro-choice PAC has a knack for picking winners: 85 percent of the candidates they backed triumphed their primaries this year. “We have always thought that North Carolina could and should be in play,” says Laphonza Butler, president of EMILY’s List. Butler cited Beasley’s background as a judge and experience running statewide campaigns as two of the factors that made her “an incredibly attractive candidate for North Carolina voters, particularly in this moment.”
The campaign has demonstrated savvy too: making the counterintuitive decision to start advertising early in the summer, introducing Beasley to voters long before outside groups like the Club for Growth began carpet bombing the airwaves with ads cherry-picking past judgements to cast her as “dangerously liberal” and “soft on crime.” In one such TV spot, the group faults Beasley for joining an opinion that found continual GPS monitoring by the state was a violation of one’s constitutional rights. The case in question ultimately went to the U.S. Supreme Court, where all nine justices agreed with the opinion Beasley joined. You don’t hear that part in the TV ad. Instead, you hear that the plaintiff, a convicted sex offender, was released from prison in September. “Where’s he going?” the ominous voiceover asks. “Ask Cheri Beasley. She’s the reason we won’t know.”
Ted Budd’s campaign, in contrast to his opponent’s, coasted quietly through the summer on autopilot, seemingly operating under dual assumptions. The first was that in this state, and under these political conditions, a generic Republican could easily hold the Senate seat. The second was that voters would believe Budd is a generic Republican.
If elected, Budd will be the most hard-right senator North Carolina has sent to Washington since Jesse Helms. He is one of only three members of North Carolina’s fairly conservative House delegation who have joined the far-right Freedom Caucus. (The other two are Madison Cawthorn and Dan Bishop, the author of North Carolina’s infamous bathroom bill.) He has a long record of protests votes against even the most inoffensive bipartisan efforts: besides the five-year farm bill, Budd voted against the CHIPS Act, intended to boost semiconductor manufacturing — another big industry in North Carolina. Budd voted against a bill to help ease the baby formula shortage, against infrastructure legislation, against the Inflation Reduction Act, against a gun safety bill supported by both of North Carolina’s current Republican Senators, Thom Tillis and Richard Burr. Budd voted, too, to overturn the election results.
Former Republican governor Pat McCrory, a primary rival of Budd’s, has been blunt in his assessment of Budd’s campaign: “He’s in hiding,” McCrory told a reporter in August. GOP strategists have admitted to being nervous about Budd’s chances, concerned in particular about his ability to reach out to the independent voters he needs to attract in order to win. Outside groups have stepped in to shore up Budd’s campaign: In addition to Club For Growth Action, which has spent at least $7 million boosting Budd, the Senate Leadership Fund has poured $29 million into the North Carolina race.
But the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision to end federal protections for abortion has thrown an additional spike strip in Budd’s path to victory. His views on the issue could not be more extreme: Budd has said he supports outlawing abortion even in cases of rape and incest and has gone further than even the most rabid anti-abortion groups, by raising questions about whether there should be exceptions if a woman’s life is at stake. Asked point-blank if he opposed an abortion ban even if “the mother may die from giving birth?” Budd replied: “I think that’s something you have to look at.”
In spite of the clear contrasts between them, the contest between Beasley and Budd remains neck-and-neck: 44 to 44 among registered voters in North Carolina according to a Marist poll released late last week.
Even if Beasley’s upset bid falls short, however, her effort to pull in new voters could prove the difference in the long term fight for North Carolina’s future, as there’s more than just a Senate seat hanging in the balance on Tuesday.
If legions of Republicans (and enough GOP-curious unaffiliateds) show up at the polls this year, the party is poised to win a supermajority in North Carolina’s General Assembly, and with it, the power to override Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper’s vetoes. The GOP could also net two Supreme Court seats that are up for grabs, handing them a majority on the court. That combination could spell doom for Democrats in North Carolina for years to come: it was the state Supreme Court, with a democratic majority, that acted a check on the legislature earlier this year, throwing out gerrymandered district maps that would have ensured 10 of the state’s 14 Congressional districts were Republican. But those maps are set to be redrawn next year.
Without a meaningful check on a GOP-dominated General Assembly’s power, the consequences for voters — and especially voters of color — in North Carolina could be catastrophic.
Beasley recognizes that threat, and it’s one of the reasons why she chose to run this year. On the campaign trail, she often speaks about her mother, who was granted the right to vote with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. “To think about the fact that voting rights are on the line, when a generation ago, my mother and my grandparents were granted the right to vote? Here we are still a generation later, still fighting to secure the right to vote,” Beasley shakes her head. She adds, simply: “I will always fight when our freedoms are on the line.”
After all he and his family have been through, Phillip Barker, the owner of the farm, has more reason than most to be cynical about the political process, and pessimistic about an election like this one. But he’s not. “Fox News puts a lot of negative stuff out there, and people have a tendency to buy into it, but, for me, I think she has a very good chance,” Barker says. “I think we’re going to wake up on the ninth in better shape than we think we are.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Senate Majority PAC has spent $15 million on Beasley’s race; that figure represents only what the PAC has spent on TV advertising. It has invested $22 million overall.
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