Barring any last-minute surprises, political analysts say the U.S. Senate race between Republican Ted Budd and Democrat Cheri Beasley will go down to the wire.
The latest polls show Budd with a slight edge, with one within the margin of error, said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College in Salisbury, and Stephen Greene, a political science professor at N.C. State University in Raleigh.
Some polls give Budd as much as a 3 percentage point lead, while a poll released in late August by the Democrat-leaning Public Policy Polling shows Beasley ahead by a single percentage point. The average of multiple polls has Budd ahead by 3.7 points, according to Real Clear Politics on Oct. 25.
Among the latest polls, one conducted Oct. 10-13 by East Carolina University shows Budd widening the gap to 6 percentage points, while a poll conducted Oct. 16-19 by the Trafalgar group shows him up by 4 points.
Budd, 50, has been in the U.S. House of Representatives for North Carolina’s 13th Congressional District since 2017. Beasley, 56, is a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. She also served on the state Court of Appeals and as a District Court judge in Cumberland County.
Both candidates hope to replace retiring Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
Bitzer and Greene don’t think there is much, if anything, either of the candidates can do this close to the Nov. 8 general election to swing voters their way.
“What I'm seeing and thinking about this election is it’s pretty much baked at this point,” Bitzer said. “Yes, we could have some kind of typical surprise by the end of this month, but partisan loyalty is so entrenched, particularly in this state, that you're dealing with a very small percentage of potential undecided, persuadable voters. And it's all about base, voter election dynamics, getting your party's base voters out to the polls.”
Bitzer noted that two years ago, the state was carried by former President Donald Trump and U.S. Sen. Thom Tillis won re-election. Both are Republicans. But Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper also was re-elected. The count in all those races fell within the margin of error, he said.
‘A boring race’
“To Budd and Beasley’s credit, this is a boring race in the sense that, again, they have avoided anything to draw on toward negative media attention,” Greene said.
Perhaps that explains why Budd did not agree to interviews for this story, failing to respond to multiple email and phone messages. Beasley’s campaign did respond, 10 days after being sent an initial email. A spokeswoman for Beasley said the candidate did not have time for an interview but would respond to written questions. The spokeswoman did not respond to a subsequent message.
Bitzer said he was surprised that Beasley and Budd even agreed to a debate, which was held earlier this month. The candidates stuck to their political talking points and walked away without so much as a bruise.
“I think part of it is the risk-reward analysis of, you know, ‘How much can I control the campaign message and narrative,’” Bitzer said. “I think this year, both Budd and Beasley are focused on these small voter groups of like-minded individuals. … Both sides are looking at it and saying, ‘We don't want to risk, you know, the potential of calling more attention to ourselves, so we're pursuing other paths to communicating with the voters.’ This has been going on for several election cycles.”
Greene doesn’t think any of the candidates’ television ads have been effective. In one, the Budd campaign attacks Beasley as soft on crime and failing to protect victims when she served on the state Supreme Court. In another, the Budd campaign accuses Beasley of supporting student loan forgiveness, using taxpayer money to help the rich at the expense of everyone else.
A couple of Beasley’s campaign ads accuse Budd of wanting to take away a woman’s right to have an abortion and failing to vote for legislation that would lower prescription drug prices.
While celebrity Senate races in Georgia and Pennsylvania garner mass attention from the national parties and the media, the Budd-Beasley race has been characterized as sleepy, even though it could determine which party controls the Senate.
Greene calls it “the ultimate generic Senate race of 2022,” one in which the Republicans adhere strictly to their talking points and the Democrats to theirs.
The media outlet Axios Raleigh had a headline in September that read: “The closest Senate race in America that nobody’s watching.” A headline in the New Yorker said simply: “North Carolina’s overlooked Senate race.”
Greene and Bitzer wonder why Budd doesn’t hit harder on the key issues of inflation and the economy under the Biden administration. They question why Beasley doesn’t attack Budd more vigorously for being in lockstep with Trump, the issues surrounding false claims of election fraud, the Jan. 6 insurrection, classified documents being discovered at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property, and the question of whether democracy is at risk.
While Bitzer said he sees little opportunity this close to the election for either Budd or Beasley to move the needle in their favor, he does think the Democratic base could rally around the Supreme Court decision in June that overturned the constitutional right to have an abortion. The high court left it to states to decide whether abortion should be legal.
In most instances, women still have the right to an abortion in North Carolina. But according to the Beasley campaign and other sources, Budd supports a total abortion ban, even in the case of rape, incest or a threat to a woman's health.
“I think the odd aspect of this midterm is the introduction of things like the abortion issue, particularly to motivate Democrats,” Bitzer said. “Republicans are already highly motivated. Democrats needed that, you know, lighting a fire underneath them to get motivated, and I think the Supreme Court did that with the Dobbs decision.
“How that will play out come Nov. 8 is anybody's guess. This environment is presenting everything that should be advantage Republican, but it's also presenting some things that are helping the Democrats. So, it's going to be a tight race all the way toward the finish line.”
Voter turnout is key
Since 2010, when Republicans took over the state House and Senate, GOP voter turnout has always exceeded the state average, Bitzer said. That is expected to be the case again this year, he said. Although Democrats have been able to meet the state average in the past couple of election cycles, Bitzer said, they need to exceed it this year.
“The wild card is the largest bloc of registered voters are unaffiliated, but they have the lowest voter turnout,” Bitzer said. “So, the question becomes, from a strategy point of view, do you focus on just your base voters and get a few more of them to show up? Or do you try and appeal and go after the unaffiliated voter who, while they may be partisan in nature, may not be as engaged as registered partisans?”
Libertarian Shannon Bray and Green Party candidate Matthew Hoh will also be on the ballot.
Hoh is a Marine veteran and a former diplomat who resigned from the State Department in 2009 because of the surge of troops in the Afghanistan was, according to his campaign website. He says he wants to stop political corruption that is squeezing wealth to the top while leaving working people to struggle.
“I decided to run,” Hoh says on his website, “because we urgently need to take our destiny into our own hands. The time is now to build a new system that puts people, planet, and peace over profits.”
Bray is a Navy veteran who works for the Department of Defense and lives in Apex. He is pro-choice on abortion, supports affordable health care and the legalization of marijuana, and thinks the country needs to take care of its own and keep its money at home to address issues such as homelessnesss and health care, according to the Vote Smart website.
Greg Barnes is an investigative reporter for CityView. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.