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Opinion The Senate majority may depend on a November surprise

Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley speaking with potential voters on Sept. 17 in Charlotte, N.C. (Sean Rayford/Getty Images)

CHARLOTTE — Sometimes, the quiet voices end up ringing the loudest.

Cheri Beasley, the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, has gone about the business of running for U.S. Senate without clamor.

While news media and party committees obsess over Senate races in, say, Georgia (for obvious reasons) and Pennsylvania, the 56-year old Democrat has turned the battle here into one of the closest in the country.

So in November, the nation might find control of the Senate hangs on whether Beasley’s, well, judicious but systematic campaign pushed her past Rep. Ted Budd, the former president Donald Trump favorite nominated by the Republicans. A poll released this month by WRAL News in Raleigh, N.C., found Beasley just one point behind Budd.

She doesn’t mind a bit if her contest is seen as a local affair. “We’ve really been running a North Carolina-centric race,” she said in an interview Tuesday. “We are talking with folks all across the state. We’ve been to all 100 counties, and we have always been focused on the things that people here care about.”

It’s Budd who is trying to nationalize things. He is unapologetically robotic in describing his opponent as a “rubber stamp for Joe Biden,” invoking it during their recent debate three times in one 30-second answer.

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Like many Democrats in states Biden lost in 2020, Beasley is not embracing the president, but she does point to the good things Democrats have accomplished. She hits Budd hard for voting against the Inflation Reduction Act’s controls on pharmaceutical prices and said he was “voting against North Carolina” in opposing the Chips and Science Act, which she said would bolster “our manufacturing and tech sector.”

It’s one of the ironies of 2022: Many Democratic candidates who are reluctant to campaign with Biden are nonetheless running on the achievements of his administration.

Infrastructure is part of it, Charlotte Mayor Vi Lyles, a Democrat who is supporting Beasley, said in an interview. She pointed to the bipartisan infrastructure bill and her frequent engagement with Biden administration officials on local transit and roadway needs. “Under the former president,” she said, choosing not to mention Trump by name, “I went through two or three infrastructure czars.”

If national Democratic committees largely stayed out of this race until recently, it might be because North Carolina has so often broken their political hearts.

Barack Obama carried the state in 2008, but Democrats have lost it in the three White House contests since: by two points in 2012, 3.6 points in 2016 and 1.3 points in 2020. The party hasn’t won a Senate race in the state since 2008, although Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won election and reelection in 2016 and 2020, respectively.

Rep. David E. Price, a Democrat who represents the Chapel Hill area, bemoans the “fatalistic tone” of his party’s commentary and the idea that “we always lose the close ones.” Price notes that Democrat Cal Cunningham was on track to win his Senate race two years ago until his campaign was upended by an extramarital affair.

Price has been pushing the national party to get more involved here and noted that Beasley won two statewide court races and lost her election for a full term as chief justice in 2020 by just 401 votes, even as Biden ran 74,483 votes behind Trump in North Carolina.

The Supreme Court’s decision overturning Roe v. Wade has further moved expectations in favor of both Beasley and Democratic state legislative candidates. State Rep. Rachel Hunt, a Democrat who is seeking a North Carolina Senate seat, said that while Democrats feared earlier this year that they might lose seats, they were now “cautiously optimistic.” The abortion issue was arousing participation, she said, particularly among younger voters “who never thought their constitutional rights would be taken away.”

Budd clearly knows he is vulnerable on the question. He struggled during last week’s debate to insist that while he had “always been pro-life,” he had also “always been about protecting the life of the mother,” something that’s not clear from his past statements. Beasley hit back hard. “The bottom line is Congressman Budd wants to be in between a woman and her doctor,” she said. “There is no place in the exam room for Congressman Budd.”

When I asked Beasley how her background as a judge might affect her work as a senator, she was quick to draw another contrast. “Respect for the rule of law really ought to matter as policymakers are making decisions about people’s everyday lives,” she said. She charged that Budd — who called the Jan. 6, 2021, Capitol attack “just patriots standing up” — supported “election subversion” and “praised the mob that stormed the Capitol and rioted and injured and killed hundreds of law enforcement officers.”

Democrats watching Beasley’s race should remember this: In nearly every cycle, there is a Senate outcome that no one expected. In 1984 in Kentucky, a Republican county judge-executive surprised the nation by winning a Senate seat by 5,000 votes. His name was Mitch McConnell.