DURHAM, North Carolina — Before locals packed inside Beyú Caffè in downtown Durham on a Tuesday evening in October, Rheba Heggs arrived early to save her seat. A retired attorney, she had come to see Democrat Cheri Beasley, who could become the first Black person to represent North Carolina in the US Senate.
A Black woman herself, Heggs visited North Carolina as a girl, decades before she relocated to the state to be closer to her grandchildren, and well before desegregation was complete. In the front row at Beyú Caffè, she was giddy with caffeine, and hopeful about witnessing history.
“I listened to ... [Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown] Jackson the last few days. That is something I never expected to see in my lifetime. ... This is the result of all the women who have come before, not just Black women, pushing,” Heggs said. “If [Cheri Beasley] wins — when she wins, it means so much. But it also means that the Senate becomes a working institution.”
North Carolina hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate in more than a decade, and most thought this year, with its tough climate for Democrats, would go the same way. But the race to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr is actually competitive, with FiveThirtyEight’s tracking poll showing Republican Rep. Ted Budd with a less than 2 percentage point lead over Beasley, former chief justice of the state supreme court. Both are now attracting big spending from their parties and outside groups, with the Democrat-aligned Senate Majority PAC announcing an additional $4 million investment Thursday.
Even with polls close, Beasley has a tougher task ahead than Budd in the closing weeks of the campaign. There’s the recent history of close federal races slipping away from the state’s Democrats and the long history of parties in power struggling during the midterms. She has to thread a needle to assemble a coalition of enthusiastic urban, suburban, and Black voters while mitigating losses in increasingly red rural areas. But Beasley may be close to doing that, and defying history despite initially tepid investment from national Democrats.
North Carolina is as close to evenly split by party as any state, but no other swing state has as many unaffiliated voters. The path to winning it means attracting and turning out a sizable contingent of North Carolina’s more than 2 million voters who aren’t attached to a political party. They are neither true independents nor shadow partisans, as Christopher Cooper, director of Western Carolina University’s Public Policy Institute, and his co-authors write in a working paper examining state voter registration data.
Nearly half of these voters are Gen Z and millennials. They are more racially and ethnically diverse than Republicans but not as diverse as Democrats. In North Carolina, they are allowed to vote in any primary they choose. Cooper found that only about half of them voted in the same party’s primary in the last three presidential elections, while the others floated between the parties. That suggests that some just don’t like partisan labels while others are true swing voters.
When Beasley lost reelection to the court in 2020, it was by a mere 401 votes, a gap that she pointed out to the crowd in Durham could have been closed with just one Duke University or North Carolina Central University dorm building. This race, too, will almost certainly be won or lost on margins.
“We can ill afford to let our foot off the gas for democracy. Y’all, we don’t have to guess about what would happen if we don’t come through,” Beasley said.
The race has flown under the radar in part because Budd had an early polling advantage, but also because neither Beasley nor Budd seems to see much benefit in running a splashy campaign. Retiring Democratic Rep. David Price described Beasley as having a “judicial temperament” rather than that of a firebrand, while Budd has made few public appearances, to the chagrin of some Republican Party leaders, seemingly betting that the national environment can carry him.
That could play in either of their favor given that they cannot afford to alienate persuadable voters. Democrats have a slight registration advantage over Republicans, but as of 2022, there are even more registered voters in the state who do not affiliate with either party — and they represent a major wild card.
“People want to know that the next senator is not embroiled in the pettiness of partisan politics in Washington. Folks want to know that she’s ready to fight, that she will stand for what’s right, that she will call out what’s wrong and lead courageously. That’s what people want. They’re really tired of all of this,” Beasley told Vox. (The Budd campaign did not respond to requests for an interview.)
Unlike in states like Pennsylvania, where the Senate race has been in part a battle of personalities, Beasley and Budd have turned their attention to the issues where they think their opponent is weak.
For Budd, that’s the economy: He calls Beasley a “rubber stamp” for the Biden agenda and blames Democrats for high gas prices and costs of living. Beasley has offered her own economic solutions, but the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade has also allowed her to argue that this election is about the preservation of fundamental rights and to highlight her opponent’s extreme views, even beyond abortion.
But in a midterm election, and particularly in a race as overlooked as this one, the challenge is driving up enthusiasm. And that goal isn’t always compatible with catering to the middle.
The unaffiliated wild card
North Carolina has seen rapid population growth over the past decade, driven by new arrivals to the state, and experts say it’s only a matter of time before it turns blue. But those shifts haven’t yet resulted in consistent statewide wins for Democrats. They currently hold the governor’s mansion, a majority on the state Supreme Court, and the offices of state attorney general and secretary of state. They lament that they might have also snagged one of the state’s US Senate seats in 2020 if their nominee Cal Cunningham’s affair hadn’t sunk his campaign in its final weeks. Still, President Joe Biden lost the state in 2020 by less than 2 percentage points, and Republicans are eyeing a supermajority in the state legislature this year.
Beasley’s campaign is looking to drive up big margins in Democratic urban strongholds and surrounding suburbs. While Beasley is more progressive a candidate than Democrats would typically run in a swing state, she’s distanced herself from the party’s leftmost wing on issues like defunding the police. She is also trying to attract some rural voters with promises of legalizing marijuana so that farmers — who represent the state’s No. 1 industry — can diversify their crops, and by hammering Budd for his family’s involvement in a bankruptcy case that cost farmers millions in losses.
The unaffiliated voters Beasley needs to pick up are spread out across the state. But more than 300,000 of them are in Wake County, which has been a battleground in recent election cycles.
The small city of Fuquay-Varina in southern Wake is only about a half-hour drive to Raleigh, but parts of it feel rural, with a landscape of small farms and more than 500 acres of public parks. Its population has nearly doubled over the past decade. It’s home to many young parents with school-age children and out-of-state transplants who came to work in the so-called Research Triangle, where Apple is building a $1 billion campus. It has a Democratic member of Congress, Deborah Ross, and parts of it went for Biden in 2020 by an 11-point margin, but the mayor is a Republican and the district is represented by a Republican in the statehouse, Rep. Erin Paré.
Fuquay-Varina represents a slice of the electorate that Price describes as the “countrypolitan vote”: “When I was first running years ago, I was told by pollsters that North Carolina led the country in people thinking of themselves as rural. They may not be rural anymore. The suburbs have enveloped them, but they think of themselves as rural,” he said.
Neither candidate can afford to overlook a place like Fuquay-Varina, where there are voters across the ideological spectrum, some staunch partisans and others more fluid. Jessica Kaplar, a nurse and mother of two who has lived in the city for the past 15 years, said she believes Democrats’ position on abortion is equivalent to “mandating murder.”
Willette McClain said she has voted for Democrats all her life and feels like her safety is at risk — in terms of her reproductive rights and financial security and as a Black woman. One unaffiliated voter told Vox she prioritizes immigration reform and doesn’t believe that her religious beliefs should preclude others from getting an abortion, but declined to give her name or say whether she voted for Biden or Trump in the last presidential election: “This is such a fraught political climate that we’re very quiet about politics. There just seems to be a lot of hate and dissension.”
In hewing to the middle in an effort to snap up these “countrypolitan” voters, both Beasley and Budd run the risk of failing to make an impression. At a time when most candidates, both Republican and Democrat, are pitching themselves as “fighters” and throwing punches on Twitter in an embrace of polarization, Beasley’s and Budd’s approaches are unusual.
“These are two candidates who either don’t want to or aren’t very good at seeking attention,” Cooper said.
Beasley is lively when she’s in friendly territory. In Durham, for example, the crowd erupted in applause and cries of “Amen!” when she said that she would eliminate the filibuster, unlike some of her more moderate would-be Democratic colleagues in the Senate.
“We know that it is a tool of gridlock that hinders the passage of legislation that a majority of folks here in the state and in this country support,” Beasley said.
Still, from Fuquay-Varina to the coastal city of Wilmington, many of the two dozen or so voters I spoke with were unaware that there was an election happening and had never heard of the candidates. They did have strong opinions on Biden and Trump and on the two parties, and most of them cited issues like the economy and abortion rights, which tracks with polling of North Carolina voters who ranked those issues among their top concerns. Nearly every voter said that they were feeling the pinch of higher prices even if it wasn’t driving their political choices. But that might not be enough to motivate them to vote if they’re not excited by either candidate.
It’s a contest between the economy and abortion
Beasley is running on kitchen table issues, like making prescription drugs, health care, housing, college, and even fertilizer more affordable. But, as in many other races across the country, Dobbs fundamentally changed things, and she knows that. At a roundtable with small-business owners in Raleigh earlier this month, she wore a necklace with gold lettering that read “Protect Roe.”
In North Carolina, 49 percent of voters believe that abortion should be accessible under at least some circumstances, according to a New York Times polling average. That puts North Carolina on par with states like Georgia and Oklahoma, and makes it slightly less supportive of abortion than the national average of 54 percent of voters. Beasley would support codifying Roe in federal law, which would allow for restrictions on abortion later in pregnancy, but not in cases where the pregnant person’s life is at risk.
“Primarily, bread-and-butter issues are the heart and soul of what’s happening in the state,” Beasley told Vox. “At the same time, Roe is a huge issue. People get that politicians like Congressman Ted Budd are completely out of step. … And so it is important to have someone in the Senate who’s going to fight hard to make sure that Roe v. Wade is the law of the land. That is absolutely my commitment.”
Beasley has made the case that a vote for Budd would be another vote in the Senate in favor of a nationwide abortion ban and has claimed that he would also support an “absolute ban” on abortion. Indeed, he co-sponsored legislation that would ban abortion nationally after 15 weeks of pregnancy.
In a televised debate earlier this month, Budd twice dodged questions about whether he would support a total ban, saying that he would want to save the life of the mother and “as many unborn lives as possible” before pivoting to attacking Democrats’ Women’s Health Protection Act, a bill that would have banned states from enacting many kinds of abortion restrictions. He said he would “counter” that legislation if Democrats pursued it further.
That has left many voters worried about what they can expect from Budd should he be elected. A total ban would go too far for most voters in Paré’s Wake County district, but they also want to see some “reasonable restrictions” on abortion, the Republican state representative said. (Of course, the devil is in the details of any proposed restrictions.)
Tennessee Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who spoke at a North Carolina GOP event in Raleigh earlier this month to make the case for Budd, told Vox how she would answer their concerns: “The Dobbs decision turns this back to the states. Since I don’t try to tell them what to do, I’m going to let them have their opportunity to take their actions.”
But the lack of clarity around Budd’s position on a total abortion ban may not end up being a decisive factor if Roe recedes from the forefront in the final weeks before the election. Gas prices are on the rise again (though still well down from peaks over the summer), and another unexpectedly bad inflation report this month may put Democrats like Beasley on their back foot again.
“If the Budd campaign can [neutralize] the emotional side of Roe v. Wade with suburban women, then it is a huge advantage to Ted Budd. If the Beasley campaign can emotionalize that issue more so than the economics, it’s advantage Cheri Beasley. That’s how the race plays out,” Paul Shumaker, a GOP strategist based in North Carolina, said.
Biden and Trump are looming over the race
In late September, Trump appeared in Wilmington to stump for Budd. New Hanover County, where Wilmington is located, is considered a bellwether county, one of two in North Carolina that embraced Trump in 2016 and rejected him in 2020. Its high population of elderly, Black, and college student voters has made it one of the largest purple counties in the state.
Trump could have tried to make a specific case for Budd. Instead, his speech was a rambling diatribe, echoing his false claims about the 2020 election, reiterating personal vendettas against Democratic figures like New York Attorney General Letitia James, and invoking racist dog whistles.
Budd sailed through the primary because of Trump’s endorsement (and millions in TV ad spending from the Club for Growth PAC), but the endorsement doesn’t seem to be serving him anymore.
Alex Paen, a resident of Carolina Beach, which is just south of Wilmington, voted for former President Barack Obama and then for Trump in 2016 because he felt a certain kinship with him since he’s also in the real estate business. He wasn’t sure which candidate he would support in the Senate race this year, and he thinks Biden is doing a terrible job. But his perception of Trump had changed over time, and he said he would be reluctant to vote for him again in 2024. “I would hope there was a better Republican candidate. I don’t think he’s a good human based on things he says, what he does, how he fights, his pettiness,” he said.
Trump’s unique divisiveness as the figurehead of the GOP threatens to weigh Budd down. During the debate, Budd avoided a question about whether he would support Trump in 2024 and tried to walk back previous comments where he said the January 6 insurrection at the US Capitol was “just patriots standing up” by claiming that he has never condoned violence.
Beasley hasn’t made this race about Trump, but she does remind voters of Budd’s ties to Trump and why that makes him too extreme for North Carolina.
Biden is similarly a thorn in Beasley’s side. The president’s dismal approval ratings, though on the upswing, are a hindrance. People noticed when Beasley didn’t appear alongside Vice President Kamala Harris during a recent visit to the state, and she hasn’t committed to campaigning alongside the president in the future. When I asked her whether she would be willing to break with Biden in the Senate, she said, “I’m fully prepared to lead in the way that North Carolina needs me to lead.” During the debate, she also declined to say whether Biden should run for reelection in 2024 and said that the “president and Congress could work a whole lot harder to make sure that prices are being lowered” when asked whether he was responsible for current economic woes.
But she doesn’t owe Biden her nomination, as Budd does to Trump. And her judicial background has made it difficult for Republican attack ads portraying her as a pawn of Biden’s to stick. That might help her connect with unaffiliated voters repelled by both Biden and Trump.
“I think Beasley has been able to introduce herself to voters as a North Carolina-type Democrat, not a DC Democrat,” Morgan Jackson, a Democratic strategist based in North Carolina, said. “Voters don’t think of her as a politician, but as a judge. They view her more as an independent person than a partisan warrior.”