Hannah Demissie is one of seven ABC News campaign reporters embedded in battleground states ahead of the November midterms.
Demissie is covering Missouri and North Carolina. Below, she describes what she saw and heard in North Carolina as early voting got underway last week -- with control of Congress hanging in the balance.
See more of Demissie's work with the embed team and anchor George Stephanopoulos on Hulu's "Power Trip: Those Seeking Power and Those Who Chase Them."
We're entering crunch time in the final weeks of the 2022 election cycle. Amid that countdown, a slew of big-name surrogates have been turning out for North Carolina's Democratic and Republican Senate nominees, Cheri Beasley and Rep. Ted Budd -- who are locked in a close, potentially crucial, race.
Thursday stands out for me as a moment when the contest between Beasley and Budd may have started to shift. It was the first day of early in-person voting in the state, and some political heavyweights joined the campaigns.
After months of the polling showing a virtual tie between the two candidates, according to FiveThirtyEight, Budd also began to open up a small but notable lead.
Over the course of the day, though, both he and Beasley insisted that every vote mattered: not just for their race but for which party would have a Senate majority come January, with the power to block or confirm presidential appointments and shape or filibuster legislation on abortion, the economy and more.
I started Thursday off with the North Carolina Democratic Party, which held a rally to kick off the first day of early in-person voting. There, Beasley, a former state judge, spoke along with other down-ballot Democratic candidates -- setting the stakes as she saw them.
"We know that the fundamental freedom to pursue life, liberty and happiness must be protected," she said, "and we are the protectors every time we exercise our right to vote."
Another influential Democrat who joined the rally was North Carolina Gov. Roy Cooper, who won reelection in 2020 despite former President Donald Trump winning the state that same year. Cooper notably expanded his margin of victory from 2016 in what one expert told ABC News was an example of the purple state's "blue tinge" at the state level.
Beasley -- emphasizing health care and abortion access -- hopes to build on that success, despite her party's headwinds over inflation and the economy. Speaking Thursday, Gov. Cooper focused on what he called the GOP's extremism after Jan. 6.
"It's pretty clear that a majority of the Republican Party prefers an autocracy to a democracy as long as their guy is in charge," he said. "If we want to preserve our democracy, we have to make sure that we're electing people who believe in it."
Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade this summer, abortion has become one of the most critical issues in North Carolina and Democrats have seized on the opportunity. During Thursday's rally, Beasley promised to use her Senate vote to codify Roe's protections, if elected.
"I will fight, and I will fight to make sure that Roe vs. Wade is the law of the land," she said.
After she spoke, Beasley headed to a polling station in Raleigh -- trailed by reporters like me -- to cast her early vote alongside her husband and one of her sons.
From there, I drove to Greensboro, where Budd was holding a campaign event with Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel and Florida Sen. Rick Scott, head of the National Republican Senatorial Committee.
During the event, Scott emphasized the importance of conservatives holding onto the North Carolina Senate seat after Richard Burr's retirement.
"We have to win in North Carolina," Scott said. "If we don't win North Carolina, we're not gonna get a majority."
During Scott and Budd's remarks, both hit on the economy and underlined how many Americans are feeling the pain of historically high inflation.
"If you like paying more for everything, you should vote for Beasley and [President] Joe Biden, because they did that," Scott said Thursday.
Budd was even more blunt, saying he'd heard directly from locals about how the rising cost of living made their daily needs less attainable.
"This is the grocery cart that she could afford two years ago," he said, describing one anecdote from a voter. "And unfortunately, this is the grocery cart that [she] can afford now -- which is pretty empty."
Polls consistently show the economy and inflation are top of mind of many voters, who in turn give the edge on addressing it to the GOP. Republicans blame Democratic spending policies while Democrats, who defend themselves by citing low unemployment, say prices are fueled by supply chain issues, Russia's invasion of Ukraine and other factors.
Voters also largely disapprove of the president. On Thursday, as North Carolina voters began casting their ballots, Budd wanted them to think about Biden and Beasley as a package deal.
"I've got a record in the U.S. Congress that I'm running toward," he said. "She's going to try to hide. She's going to run away from Joe Biden."
"Power Trip: Those Seeking Power and Those Who Chase Them" releases new episodes on Sundays on Hulu.