National prognosticators say NC Senate race will favor whichever GOP candidate emerges from May 17 primary
Presumed Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley faces an uphill fight, but will bring plenty of experience and funding to the effort
Absentee ballots are starting to roll in and in-person early voting began Thursday in this year’s U.S. Senate primary, an election in which nearly all of the focus is on the bare-knuckled fight in the Republican race.
But even before that’s decided, the country’s top political prognosticators are out with predictions for the fall. All are in agreement that the GOP appears on track to hold on to the North Carolina Senate seat being vacated by three-term Sen. Richard Burr.
Part of the reasoning behind the forecasts is a well-established trend of losses for the president’s party in midterm congressional elections. That’s being amplified by the drop in President Joe Biden’s favorability ratings in North Carolina, which remains well below where it was on Election Day 2020, when he lost the state by roughly 75,000 votes out in of more than 5.4 million cast.
In late February, the Cook Political Report moved its official rating on the race from “Tossup” to “Leans Republican.” In an article accompanying the call, Cook’s Senate and Governor Elections Editor Jessica Taylor wrote that despite Cheri Beasley’s strength as a candidate, the national trends are not in her favor. In a better year for Democrats, she wrote “Beasley might even be slightly favored or at least even after what could be a nasty [GOP] primary. But this seat has begun to stand out as more difficult for Democrats to flip given the history and headwinds of the state.”
This week, the organization’s founder, Charlie Cook put Democrats’ chances to flip the seat in even bleaker terms, telling a C-SPAN interviewer Monday that he thinks GOP frontrunner Rep. Ted Budd is the “weaker” Republican candidate, then adding: “But given this environment, I think even the weaker Republican is more likely to win the General Election.”
Sabato’s Crystal Ball, an analysis and forecasting group based at the University of Virginia Center for Politics, has rated the North Carolina race as “Leans Republican” from the outset.
Crystal Ball associate editor J. Miles Coleman said while their case for it reflects the realities of 2022, it’s also based on history.
Of the seven Senate races this century, Democrats won only one, in 2008, when Kay Hagan defeated incumbent Elizabeth Dole; that year record turnout tipped the state for Barack Obama.
Coleman said given North Carolina’s track record in Senate races, particularly over the past decade, the open seat is an uphill climb for a Democrat. “It’s still a light red state,” Coleman said. “So we’ve had it as Republican ever since we first looked at it.”
Coleman, a Louisiana native who grew up in Charlotte, said the state is rapidly changing. There is a continuing influx of new residents and big population shifts within its borders as younger people are migrating out of rural areas and into larger cities and towns.
During the Obama era, Coleman said there was an expectation that demographic changes in North Carolina, particularly greater numbers of younger voters, would move the state in Democrats’ favor. Although those trends continue, the political shift hasn’t played out as expected.
“What hurts Democrats is you have some counties like Randolph, Johnston, Union, Iredell, counties that are growing, but still haven’t moved,” he said. Retirees moving to the mountains and top-growth coastal counties, like Brunswick, are balancing out the influx of younger voters to larger cities.
“I remember in 2010 when Richard Burr carried Wake County. Pat McCrory in 2012 carried it as well,” he said. “Now, in 2020, we’re at the point where you have Biden getting over 60% in Wake, but that’s still not enough to flip the state.” There’s also still a large population in the state’s rural counties and to win statewide, Democrats will have to make inroads in those areas as well, he said. “What’s working in favor of the Republicans, is that the red areas of the state have gotten even more red.”
Until Democrats cut into margins in those areas, the changes in the state’s largest counties will be canceled out, Coleman said, but that’s become more difficult as political polarization has increased.
Coleman said he got a memorable question after the 2020 election, contrasting Gov. Roy Cooper’s re-election with the win by GOP Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson, an unabashed culture warrior.
“They asked ‘how can it be that in North Carolina, we can elect Mr. Rogers as governor, but at the same time, we elect Alex Jones lieutenant governor?’” Coleman said.
That heightened polarization makes it more difficult for Democrats running statewide because they have to reach voters on traditionally hostile turf, selling competence and independence from the party.
“Basically, in North Carolina if you’re a Republican, you can get away with being more partisan,” Coleman said.
Beasley’s statewide track record does show strength outside of Democratic strongholds. She ran ahead of Biden in rural and exurban counties, areas that have become even more difficult for Democrats as the state’s grown more politically divided. Her early round of television ads, launched two weeks ago are biographical and calm.
Asked to respond to the early predictions on the election, Beasley, who cast her ballot Thursday in Raleigh on the first day of early voting, stuck to her selling points.
“Traveling across North Carolina meeting with voters, it’s clear that people are tired of the division coming from Washington and the lack of meaningful action to make their lives better,” Beasley wrote in an email. “I’ve spent nearly three decades serving our state as a public defender, judge, and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, working to uphold the law, protect our rights, and keep communities safe — and will bring that same integrity and independence to representing all North Carolinians.”
Still a long way to go
Former North Carolina Supreme Court Justice Patricia Timmon-Goodson, a Beasley supporter, said it’s far too soon to predict the outcome of the race. She disagrees that Beasley’s chances will rise or fall with the president’s poll numbers.
“It’s just terribly, terribly early,” she said this week. “I do not believe that the the national scene is going to definitively carry the day here.”
The challenge for Beasley, she said, will be to build the local alliances and connections, to make her case directly in smaller settings, as well as compete in the media battle.
“I think that you’re going to have to find a way to connect directly with your voters,” Timmon-Goodson said, especially younger voters and the growing number of unaffiliated voters. “You connect with them about by talking about the issues that are important to them and more often than not they’re the bread and butter issues.”
Without significant opposition in the primary, Beasley has been able to keep a steady schedule on the road around the state. Timmons-Goodson said she’ll need to keep up those campaign events.
“By doing what she’s doing, that’s going to allow her to build alliances and that is absolutely necessary in order to to win,” she said. “She can’t touch directly enough folks to impact a race. But those folks connecting with other folks and building alliances with other folks, that will do it. So you know, it’s kind of like a spark.”
Like Beasley, Timmons-Goodson ran and lost in 2020 — Beasley by less than 500 votes and Timmon-Goodson by seven percentage points in a bid to unseat GOP congressman Richard Hudson. Both women got more votes in their respective races than Joe Biden got in his.
Timmons-Goodson, the first Black woman elected to the state Supreme Court, said the historic nature of Beasley’s candidacy and the importance of the seat will raise interest in the race, but it’s clear Beasley isn’t waiting around.
“In order to win anything, you’ve got to be in the fight and Cheri Beasley’s in the fight, “Timmons-Goodson said.
[Note: Timmons-Goodson is a member of the Board of Directors of the North Carolina Justice Center, parent organization of NC Policy Watch.]
Polling and fundraising hasn’t skewed far enough from expectations to shift the predictions. Beasley remains the top fundraiser among candidates, and there’s already a flood of funds flowing into the race via PACs, SuperPACs and leadership committees. The race is predicted to be one of the most expensive in the nation.
In addition to being evenly divided along partisan lines, North Carolina voters have been fickle in Senate races.
Burr is the only senator to win three terms since Jesse Helms defeated former governor Jim Hunt in 1984. Of the 10 senators since Helms and Sam Ervin, Jr. represented the state in the early 1970s, only Burr and Thom Tillis, who won his second term in the 2020 election, have been re-elected.
So far, Coleman said, 2022 looks like a good national environment for Republicans, but it won’t be a blowout in North Carolina. And there’s always a chance that the dynamics can change between now and November.
“Yes, it’s probably going to be a pretty good Republican year, but, you know, maybe Biden’s standing could get better by the time of the general election or we could have some black swan event,” Coleman said. “In the forecast industry, we have to embrace uncertainty.”
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