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Opinion The Senate candidate who could turn back the MAGA crowd in North Carolina

Cheri Beasley, the Democratic candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in North Carolina, at a campaign event in Raleigh on May 17. (Eamon Queeney for The Washington Post)

Cook Political Report and Larry Sabato’s Crystal Ball both rank the race for the open Senate seat in North Carolina as “Leans Republican.” But it by no means tells the full story of the current campaign.

The Republican candidate, Rep. Ted Budd — a staunch right-winger boosted by former president Donald Trump’s endorsement — has voted against everything from the 2021 bipartisan infrastructure bill to access to contraception to the CHIPS Act. As Axios reports, Budd has also “left the door open to banning abortion in cases where a mother’s life could be at risk as well as in cases of rape and incest.” He is ahead of his Democratic opponent by less than three points according to FiveThirtyEight. Yet the race has been only lightly covered in the national media.

It might behoove political watchers to start paying attention. Democrats have nominated Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. She would be the first Black senator from North Carolina (and only the third Black woman senator in U.S. history).

During a telephone interview, Beasley stressed: “North Carolina has 100 counties. I’ve visited them all. I’ve spent a lot of time in rural communities.” Her message is that she will represent the entire state and deliver benefits for North Carolinians, while Budd, she says, has “stood for corporate and special interests.” She argues that issues such as the CHIPS bill and reducing prescription drug costs are not “partisan.” “Republican farmers are feeling the impact of climate change on their income,” she notes. “If you cannot afford prescription drugs, these are not partisan issues.”

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When George Floyd was murdered, Beasley spoke out to recognize “a resounding, national chorus of voices whose lived experiences reinforce the notion that Black people are ostracized, cast out, and dehumanized.” Her position on crime and criminal justice is measured, however. She favors more funding for law enforcement for recruitment, training and violence prevention. “We can support law enforcement,” she says, “and also expect transparency and accountability.” She supported the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act because it would have “protected law enforcement and communities.”

When it comes to abortion, Beasley says Budd and state Republican lawmakers are “completely out of step” with North Carolina voters, a majority of whom favored upholding Roe v. Wade. According to a public-opinion poll of North Carolina voters conducted in April by Meredith College, 52.6 percent of those surveyed wanted the state to “pass a law keeping the current provisions of Roe or expanding abortion access further.”

We also discussed student loan debt. Republicans have condemned President Biden’s decision to forgive some student debt as a giveaway to undeserving slackers. But that argument might not play well in North Carolina, a state where debt is a major concern. More than 1 million North Carolinians carry student debt, amounting to 55 percent of college graduates — with an average debt of nearly $30,000.

Beasley argues that the Biden debt relief program “will really make a huge difference,” especially for those whose debt has prevented them from qualifying for a mortgage or limited their career options. But she also favors reforms such as greater transparency in lending and affording students the ability to refinance with a lower interest rate.

Certainly, Beasley would break a glass ceiling if elected. Although she argues that we are “better served” with diversity in the courts and in the Senate, she puts the emphasis on who will best deliver for her state, arguing that it “matters a whole lot” who “really works for North Carolina.”

Reeling off the list of popular legislation Budd opposed — including the PACT Act, about which Beasley said, “He turned his back on veterans” — she asserted that people want their representatives to show “respect for the Constitution, respect for the rule of law” and to seriously address issues that matter to them.

Democrats for several cycles have held out North Carolina as a swing state, although since LBJ, only two Democratic presidents (Barack Obama, Jimmy Carter) have won the state. And since the 1970s, North Carolina voters have elected only four Democrats to the Senate.

Nevertheless, with a slew of popular Democratic accomplishments, a Dobbs backlash and a radical MAGA opponent, Beasley’s chances should not be underestimated.