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North Carolina fields competitive Senate race despite lack of national attention

This combination of photos shows North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley on Aug. 29 in Durham, N.C., left, and Republican candidate Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., on Sept. 25 in Mount Airy, N.C.
This combination of photos shows North Carolina Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley on Aug. 29 in Durham, N.C., left, and Republican candidate Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., on Sept. 25 in Mount Airy, N.C.

At a late-1800s farmhouse in the heart of North Carolina, national Republicans made an urgent pitch to voters in the final days of October as they gathered for an evening barbecue.

"We win by voting," said Florida Sen. Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. "And we win by getting everybody to vote."

"Are you ready to take back your country?" asked Matt Schlapp, chairman of the American Conservative Union and the Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC. "Have you had enough of being called every name in the book? Racist, hater, insurrectionist?"

"Are you ready to fire [Senate Majority Leader] Chuck Schumer?" echoed Ronna McDaniel, chairwoman of the Republican National Committee. "So am I."

These high-profile campaign surrogates recently gathered on in Mocksville, N.C., on the state's first day of early voting for one reason: get House Republican Rep. Ted Budd elected into the U.S. Senate.

Recent history is on their side. The battleground state has not elected a Democrat to the U.S. Senate for more than a decade. Plus, former President Trump endorsed Budd early in the race.

Now though, the GOP is facing one of its closest Senate contests in the country. The historic Democratic nomination of Cheri Beasley, the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has boosted supporters' hopes of turning the seat blue. Beasley has also put up strong polling numbers, trailing Budd but within the margin of error in some polls.

That, and lower-than-expected campaign funding for the race, have some dubbing it a "sleeper race."

Professor Michael Bitzer of Catawba College in Salisbury, N.C., says the race is not drawing as much money or buzz as Senate races in Georgia, Pennsylvania or elsewhere.

"North Carolina is always a strong, competitive state, and I think that that's going to play out again this year," Bitzer said.

Bitzer explained in a race of this caliber, the candidates might have drawn $200 million or more in spending. However, he projects the total this year for the Senate election could be half of that or less.

"[There's] not a whole lot of attention in terms of things like money coming in, but I think certainly we're going to have that level of competitiveness yet again," Bitzer predicted.

The race has been rated "lean Republican" by Cook Political Report.

Both parties are also facing more registered unaffiliated voters this year, versus registration by Republicans or Democrats.

Republicans hope to capitalize on voter frustration

Back at the barbecue in Mocksville, N.C., Budd says he is overwhelmed by the applause for his campaign surrogates and other supporters.

"Playing football in Davie County, when I ran a couple of good blocks, nobody ever cheered that hard, y'all," Budd joked with a friendly crowd. "This is great to be home, growing up on a farm just a few minutes from here, seeing a lot of friends that we spent almost all of our lives together."

Budd said he is hearing from energized Republican voters who are fed up with President Biden's policies.

"People are furious right now about three, three main things," Budd told NPR. "It depends on how you divide it: It's inflation, it's crime, and it's education."

At a GOP campaign stop in Greensboro, N.C., Budd supporter Robin Bunting agreed. She said she is going out to eat less and has cut back on groceries, such as buying meat only when it is on sale.

"I feel like I'm very fortunate, but we still make choices, you know and cut back," Bunting said. "It's bad and we need a change."

Republicans are also using fear tactics to get Republican voters motivated, said Bitzer, the politics professor. But some of those claims are largely false or misleading.

"How about allowing men to play in women's sports? I mean we got Title IX so women can have sports and have some success. And now we're going to let men play women's sports? Democrats did that," Sen. Scott told the crowd at a stop in Greensboro.

Another misleading claim shared by Scott and others: Democrats support abortions "up until the moment of birth." It's now a common refrain for Republican candidates across the country.

"This is a classic kind of campaign strategy nowadays in American politics. It's fear and threats that really motivate people to show up to vote," Bitzer said. "I think what Republicans are trying to do is to frame the issue in the most extreme approach, and say this is what you will get if you elect Democrats."

Democrats hope voters feel a sense of urgency

Democrats are hoping for a different kind of change: to take a seat held for more than a decade by the GOP, most recently by retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr, and turn it blue.

Beasley, the former chief justice of North Carolina's Supreme Court who's now running for Senate, is angling for an upset.

"People really are excited about this race. They understand the sense of urgency around it," Beasley said at a recent Democratic event in Charlotte.

Beasley is the first African American woman nominated for the role. That has energized a key demographic — Black voters.

To reach that critical constituency, Beasley is meeting voters at churches around the state. She has also been boosted by a "souls to the polls" effort to get church goers to ballot box.

"There's a lot of power in the church," Beasley recently told religious leaders at meeting at the Little Rock African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church in Charlotte. "I grew up in the church. My husband grew up in the church. Our sons grew up in the church. And y'all know, it is not just our religious center. It is our social center and it is our political center."

At this event, Beasley had a powerful surrogate in House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn. Clyburn played a key role in turning the momentum in Biden's direction in the runup to the 2020 election.

"This election is the most consequential election of any of our lifetimes!" Clyburn called out.

The South Carolina Democrat argues Republicans are fighting to whitewash education by erasing Black history from schools, curtailing voting and restricting reproductive rights.

"We've got to get real! We cannot sit idly by!" Clyburn implored.

But even after abortion rights energized Democratic voters this past summer, Beasley knows inflation is a top priority now.

"People want to know that I'm going to get to the Senate and I'm going to address the rising costs," Beasley told NPR. "People are feeling everything from pain at the pump to the cost of prescription drugs and everything in between."

It's all a numbers game

Spectrum News 1 political anchor Tim Boyum, left, prepares to moderate a televised debate between Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Cheri Beasley, center, and Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., Friday, Oct. 7, 2022, at Spectrum News 1 studio in Raleigh, N.C.
Travis Long / AP
Spectrum News 1 political anchor Tim Boyum, left, prepares to moderate a debate between Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate Cheri Beasley, center, and Republican Rep. Ted Budd, R-N.C., on Oct. 7 in Raleigh, N.C.

Bitzer, the politics professor, says both campaigns are making political calculations.

He notes Beasley has not appeared on the campaign trail with Biden, who's facing low approval ratings. Meanwhile, the Budd campaign does not often mention Trump during public speeches at campaign stops.

"That's a key dynamic that Republicans do not need in these last few weeks of the election, is to have Donald Trump on the ballot. They want Joe Biden on the ballot," Bitzer said.

"If Trump is on the ballot, that not only energizes Republicans, but it also energizes Democrats because they don't want another Donald Trump clone to be in Congress," he explained.

Turnout will be critical in a midterm race that typically draws fewer voters than presidential election years.

Bitzer says even in a race that leans Republican, Black voters could be key to a Beasley upset.

"They need that coalition to come out and perform almost at historic levels for a midterm in order to be competitive," Bitzer said.

At the GOP event in Greensboro, McDaniel, the RNC chair, said North Carolina has showed strong numbers for registered Republicans since 2020. That year, Sen. Thom Tillis was reelected in a costly run for both parties.

Still, McDaniel acknowledges the state is not a slam dunk for Republicans, and the party is closely watching the Senate contest as well as other critical statewide races, including House races and open seats on the state's supreme court.

"I think North Carolina is a purple state, but I do think we've seen some really good trends for the Republican Party," McDaniel said. "So this is a state that can be instrumental in a lot of different ways."

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Claudia Grisales is a congressional reporter assigned to NPR's Washington Desk.