Why No One's Talking About This Swing-State Senate Race That Could Determine the Balance of Power in Washington

Generic candidates battle it out in North Carolina

November 3, 2022

RALEIGH, N.C.—"We are so excited about Dave Matthews!"

Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina, is doing her best to rally the party's base. It's a Tuesday night in the state capital, and hundreds of college-educated white millennials and Gen Xers are definitely excited to see Dave Matthews perform at this DNC-sponsored event exactly two weeks before the 2022 midterms. (Matthews, 55, is best known for releasing a hit album several weeks before the 1994 midterms.)

The near-capacity crowd grows restless, nursing local IPAs, as the candidate rattles off some talking points about everything "at stake" in this election: abortion rights, climate change, "safe communities." Whatever that means. (Beasley's record as state Supreme Court justice and her willingness to associate with radical "defund the police" activists suggests an expansive definition of the term.) Her abbreviated stump speech does not mention inflation but concludes on an inspirational note: "Things can get worse."

Matthews takes the stage. The multi-multi-millionaire understands these middle-aged professionals and their bespoke anxieties. He rants semi-coherently about Republicans, denouncing their supporters as bigoted freaks. He wonders why we can't just get along. With great privilege comes tremendous guilt. "I'm doing good, but I don't want to feel bad about it," he complains.

The crowd goes wild.

Most Americans have never heard of Cheri Beasley or her GOP opponent, Rep. Ted Budd, a gun-store owner from Davie County outside Winston-Salem first elected in 2016. The two candidates are running to succeed Sen. Richard Burr (R., N.C.), who is retiring after three terms in office. It's a race that could determine which party controls the U.S. Senate for the second half of President Joe Biden's first (and probably last) term in office, but the national media aren't paying attention.

That is almost certainly by design. Both parties nominated generic candidates unlikely to make headlines. No celebrity doctors. No hulking stroke victims in cargo shorts who speak with the coherence of a teenage beauty queen explaining (and embodying) the failures of our education system. No eccentric football legends betraying the black community by running against a Democrat. No 2024 contenders who might disrupt former president Donald Trump's path to the GOP nomination.

Beasley is not a self-appointed media darling like Stacey Abrams. Budd was attacked by the Lincoln Project for neglecting "the people of Wisconsin." He does not provoke national journalists and other Democratic activists into fits of convulsive rage the way J.D. Vance and Ron DeSantis do. Yet Ohio and Florida aren't really swing states compared with North Carolina. In 2020, the same year Trump won the state by 1.3 percentage points, Gov. Roy Cooper (D., N.C.) was comfortably reelected. Sen. Thom Tillis (R., N.C.) would have probably lost his seat that same year if Democrat Cal Cunningham hadn't been caught cheating on his wife just weeks before Election Day.

In other words, the outcome of this race will be a reasonably accurate reflection of the national mood, which is why Budd is probably going to win. He has led almost every poll by at least 3 percentage points since early September. FiveThirtyEight gives him an 80 percent chance of victory. In a midterm cycle under a struggling Democratic president, being a generic Republican running in a swing state is a pretty good gig. The stump speech, if you can stick to the script, practically writes itself.

"If you like paying more for everything, then you should vote for [Cheri] Beasley and Joe Biden because they did that," Rick Scott, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told a group of Budd supporters last month at a GOP community center in Greensboro. "You want a good economy? You want great schools? You want low crime? You want a country that people can be proud of? Then go vote for Ted Budd."

Budd, who secured Trump's endorsement but managed to avoid the baggage that comes with it, much like Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R., Va.) in 2021, asks attendees to raise their hands if they think the country is on the wrong track and immediately cracks a joke at the expense of the journalists who kept their hands down. He isn't afraid to make controversial statements such as, "Parents ... ought to have a say in the kids' education." He talks about inflation "in real terms," as opposed to the academic experts you often see on cable news. "Paying twice as much for gas ... for a lot of folks that is a crisis," he says.

The candidate cites one of his campaign ads, titled, "A Tale of Two Carts," which highlights the rising cost of groceries since Biden took office. "You're being forced to make hard decisions because Joe Biden made bad decisions," Budd says in the ad. "Biden's reckless spending gave us record inflation that's crushing working families in North Carolina ... I'm running for Senate to stop his spending and end this recession."

Another campaign ad, "Who's to Blame?" cites a Washington Free Beacon report on Beasley's record of leniency toward child sex offenders as chief justice of the state's Democratic-controlled Supreme Court. The Senate Leadership Fund, a super PAC aligned with Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R., Ky.), has blanketed the airwaves with ads attacking her as soft on crime and highlighting her support for Biden's economic agenda.

Judith Bleiberg, a retired flight attendant and part-time fitness instructor from Greensboro, tells the Free Beacon that Budd's campaign is touching on "all of the issues that concern all Americans right now"— inflation and the economy above all, followed by schools, crime, and immigration. "I'm a senior, and my retirement savings, with the stock market, are tanking," she says. "Prices going up, gas prices going up. People can't make it like this. Oh, yes, maybe the elites and Hollywood [and Dave Matthews] or whatever, but your average person—how are they going make it if this keeps going on?"

Like most Democrats running this cycle, Beasley has struggled to articulate a compelling answer to this question. She's trying to run away from Biden while running against the U.S. Congress, where her opponent serves in the minority. She has talking points about how "Washington has failed families here in North Carolina." She says it's "time for change" and insists that "Congress can fix" the inflation problem. It is not clear how keeping Democrats in charge will accomplish that.

The Democratic Party has spent nearly a third of a billion dollars on campaign ads about abortion this cycle, compared with just $31 million on ads addressing inflation. Beasley's campaign is hardly an exception. A super PAC aligned with Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) dropped $4 million to run an abortion-themed television ad in all major media markets in the final weeks of the race. The state party is clogging suburban mailboxes with flyers denouncing Budd as a "dangerous" anti-choice zealot who "does not care about women's lives."

Beasley has attempted to embrace what passes for moderation these days. For example, she is one of the only Democrats running statewide who has not endorsed a no-limits approach to abortion. She wants to restore the "protections and restrictions" under Roe v. Wade but also insists that "women will die" if Budd is elected. Part of the problem is that in order to get national exposure and solicit donations from #Resistance liberals, Beasley has to appear on MSNBC and answer questions from lunatics like Lawrence O'Donnell and Joy-Ann Reid, who are convinced that abortion and January 6 are the top issues on voters' minds.

Before interviewing Beasley on Oct. 20, Reid moderated a thoughtful discussion about how "Republicans have ... doubled down on the idea of codifying white nationalism" by making it "literally illegal" for black people to vote. She proceeded to ask Beasley if she feels "gaslit" by polls showing voters aren't as concerned about abortion as they are about the rising costs of everyday life.

The following day, Beasley appeared on the "Higher Learning" podcast with hosts Van Lathan and Rachel Lindsay. In the segment preceding the interview, Lathan denounced Ron DeSantis as a "punk motherfucker" and "overseer ... who wants to punish people to make an example for the rest of the slaves on the plantation." Because "America's favorite pastime [is] blame the n—s." Beasley stuck to her talking points, which are unlikely to inspire anyone not already inclined to support her, especially the ones about inflation.

"In the greatest country in the world, folks should not be struggling to figure out how to pay for groceries or school supplies or high-priced medications, and Congress really must act," the candidate said. "The Senate really must act boldly to change things for folks here in North Carolina and across the country." (Context: Her party controls both chambers of Congress and the White House.)

Beasley is black, in case you were wondering. She won the Senate primary after state lawmaker Jeff Jackson, a generic white man, exited the race to run for a newly created House seat. In 2020, Democratic leaders were widely criticized for spending millions of dollars against black candidates running in key Senate primaries, including in North Carolina. "Sen. Schumer, for whatever reason, did not want an African American running for Senate in North Carolina," said Erica Smith, a black state lawmaker who lost the 2020 primary to Cunningham, the philandering failure.

A cynical observer might conclude that Schumer never thought any Democrat could win this year in North Carolina, which hasn't elected a Democratic senator since 2008, when Barack Obama became the first Democrat to win the state since Jimmy Carter. Nevertheless, the Democratic leader wanted credit for supporting diversity, so Beasley got the nod. Perhaps the Democratic Party is more virtuous when it comes to these things. Perhaps not.

In any event, when the midterms are ultimately decided, Schumer and his allies will (most likely) have to reckon with a Republican Party that is increasingly popular among minority and working-class voters, and a Democratic Party that is increasingly preoccupied with the peculiar apprehensions of Dave Matthews fans lamenting their good fortune on a Tuesday night in Raleigh.