The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

North Carolina Democratic voters yearn for a new type of Senate candidate after years of defeats. Now they have two.

Cheri Beasley, right, a Democratic candidate for U.S. Senate, laughs with T Land, executive director of Part & Parcel, a package-free grocery store that employs neurodiverse individuals, on July 7 in Durham, N.C. (Allison Lee Isley for The Washington Post)

DURHAM, N.C. — When Democratic Senate candidate Cheri Beasley paid an afternoon visit to an antipoverty nonprofit here, she didn't give a stump speech or, really, say much about her campaign at all.

But the group’s executive director, Donna Carrington, didn’t need to hear much to lend support to Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court. She credited Beasley’s aggressive moves to halt evictions during the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic last year — and the possibility of electing a fellow Black woman to high office in a state that has never elected an African American senator or governor.

“I would like to not have a decision that is: Well, I’ll vote for who’s the better of two evils,” Carrington said.

The next day, state Sen. Jeff Jackson — Beasley’s chief rival for the Democratic nomination — attracted hundreds to a park in rural Hickory, N.C., even as the remnants of Hurricane Elsa blew overhead. After a raucous 20-minute speech that touched on issues from climate change to cannabis to campaign strategy, plus another 40 minutes of audience Q&A, substitute teacher Jen Massey said he had cemented her support.

“He’s left his office. He’s out here meeting face-to-face with people. And I think that makes a huge difference,” she said.

Both Carrington and Massey are among a legion of frustrated Democrats in North Carolina eager for a fresh approach after watching their party lose four consecutive U.S. Senate races in a purple state — including, most recently, former state senator Cal Cunningham’s two-point loss last year to incumbent GOP Sen. Thom Tillis.

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The two early front-runners are offering a stark choice to the state’s Democrats in 2022. Beasley is a different kind of candidate — an African American woman and veteran judge who has previously run three statewide campaigns — who is so far overseeing a largely conventional campaign that has prioritized fundraising, endorsements and a low-key listening tour of the state.

Jackson, on the other hand, is a very familiar type of candidate — a White male Army veteran and former state prosecutor — but one who is offering a wholly different kind of campaign from past Senate candidates in North Carolina. It’s one built on a significant social media presence and a barnstorming tour inspired by Beto O’Rourke’s 2018 run in Texas that is drawing sizable crowds of curious Democrats many months before the primary.

The two are offering competing answers to a high-stakes question with national implications: How do Democrats motivate voters in a midterm election year where political head winds have traditionally blown against the president’s party?

“The profile discussion we’re having, not only voters are having in North Carolina, they’re having them all across the country,” said Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic consultant. “What is our best chance to succeed? Is it what we’ve tried in the past? Is it something different? And that’s the conversation that voters are having every day, that donors are having every day.”

Not only is North Carolina’s open Senate seat at stake, but so is the fate of the Senate’s current Democratic majority, secured only by Vice President Harris’s tiebreaking vote. The winner is likely to face one of three Republicans — former governor Pat McCrory, former U.S. congressman Mark Walker, or Rep. Ted Budd, who last month secured the endorsement of former president Donald Trump — and national groups on both sides are preparing to spend tens of millions of dollars in the general election.

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That the race centers on candidates’ individual profiles, not issues, is a change from recent Democratic primaries — including the 2020 North Carolina race — where candidates such as Cunningham who ran on poll-tested, largely centrist platforms faced challengers from the left. (Cunningham’s left-wing challenger, state Sen. Erica Smith, is among three other Democratic candidates this election, but her fundraising is badly lagging that of Beasley and Jackson.)

Both Beasley, 55, and Jackson, 38, pledge they will be reliable votes for their party’s legislative priorities, such as a sweeping voting rights bill, a federal policing overhaul and legislation granting equal rights to LGBTQ Americans — all of which are opposed by the retiring GOP incumbent, Sen. Richard Burr. And both are critical of the filibuster, the supermajority rule blocking action on those bills, without explicitly committing to eliminate it.

Rather than competing agendas, the two offer competing theories of the political case. For Beasley, that means playing up her decades of service as a judge, culminating in her appointment as chief justice in 2019. Her launch video highlighted her time on the bench — and her mother’s pioneering career as a professor of social work — and in an interview she highlighted her victories in two statewide judicial elections.

“It does matter to have a candidate who’s been tested. It does matter to have a candidate who has statewide relationships. And it does matter to have a candidate who has run an entire branch of government,” she said. “I’m not new to being in leadership and to being in service.”

Her political allies are more forthright about the possibilities her nomination might present: African Americans represent nearly a quarter of North Carolina’s population, and inspiring them to turn out — particularly in a nonpresidential year — has been a persistent challenge. Although Beasley lost her bid to remain as chief justice by 401 votes out of more than 5 million cast, she won thousands more votes than President Biden in the state.

“We’ve failed to field candidates that can really excite the electorate,” said state Rep. Brian Turner, an Asheville Democrat who has endorsed Beasley. “She’s somebody, I think, who can bring out Democrats to vote who maybe have avoided that race in the past. But I think that she’s also got a message that’s going to speak to the larger state, and she’ll be successful in the general, as well.”

Kate Douglas Torrey, a Democratic activist in Chapel Hill also backing Beasley, agreed.

“I am absolutely convinced that she can once again build an important, strong coalition of White and Black voters across the state,” she said. “She’s got the track record of being able to do it. . . . She’s the right woman at the right moment.”

Jackson, on the other hand, insists that Democrats are going to have to wage an entirely different kind of campaign if they are going to end their 14-year Senate drought in North Carolina. He is an open admirer of O’Rourke, the former Democratic congressman who made an audacious tour of all 254 Texas counties the centerpiece of his 2018 campaign against Republican Sen. Ted Cruz.

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O’Rourke ultimately lost by less than three points in a state where Democrats had lost the presidential vote by nine points in 2016. The gap in North Carolina is much closer — Biden lost to Trump there by less than two points — but the national atmosphere is unlikely to be as favorable to Democrats as it was in 2018.

“I don’t expect a blue wave — we have no choice but to try and generate our own wave,” Jackson said in an interview. “And there’s no way to do that by just running a few more TV ads in the fall.”

The power of Jackson’s approach was on display in a pair of town halls he held last week, in Hickory and later the same day at a city park in Gastonia — each of which attracted about 200 attendees. Many of them knew Jackson from his self-managed Twitter and Facebook accounts, or from a viral video earlier this year in which he railed against Republican tactics from the floor of the state Senate.

After park workers in Gastonia told Jackson that his portable loudspeaker was forbidden, Jackson hopped up on a picnic table and shouted out his stump speech.

“You’ve been asked to accept less transparency, less energy and less substance year after year after year,” he boomed. “I want to raise your expectations. You all deserve so much better than you have from your U.S. senators.” The crowd erupted with applause.

A favorite theme of Jackson’s is rejecting the command-and-control that national party leaders and political consultants tend to exert on high-profile campaigns. His distaste for such stage management was demonstrated when he opted against a 2020 run after Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), the Democratic leader in the chamber, and party operatives made clear their preference for the low-risk approach.

During a subsequent appearance at a college politics class, Jackson was secretly recorded summarizing Schumer’s approach as: “We want you to spend the next 16 months in a windowless basement raising money, and then we’re going to spend 80 percent of it on negative ads.”

This time, Schumer and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee are staying neutral — at least for now.

The six political states of North Carolina

But Jackson’s case is scrambled by the circumstances of Cunningham’s campaign, which came within approximately 100,000 votes of victory, despite being the race upended in its final month by his admission of an extramarital affair. In other words: Playing it safe and running the Washington playbook very nearly worked last year.

While many North Carolina Democrats, including some of Beasley’s supporters, believe Jackson would have won that race, Jackson declined to indulge in hindsight and instead pointed to the unique challenge that a midterm environment will pose — one, he said, that a by-the-book campaign will be hard-pressed to overcome.

“I think playing it safe is a very risky strategy this time around,” he said.

Recent political history offers mixed signals for Beasley’s candidacy. The state’s Democrats haven’t nominated a Black candidate for governor or senator since 1996, when former Charlotte mayor Harvey Gantt faced archconservative Sen. Jesse Helms a second and final time.

But the last North Carolina Democrat to win a Senate seat, Kay Hagan, was elected in 2008, as part of a Democratic wave that elected Barack Obama as president and saw record Black turnout. And the election of Raphael G. Warnock in a special election earlier this year in Georgia — making him his state’s first Black senator — proved to many Democrats that there is a winning formula in the South.

That formula is powered by voters like Alisa Ginyard, a Black nonprofit coordinator who dropped by a recent visit Beasley made to a Durham bulk-goods store and heralded Beasley’s candidacy as a potential “game-changer for North Carolina” in an interview afterward.

“For generations, people really believed that this is just the way it was: White people run things, Black people don’t,” she said. “It’s time for that to change.”

But North Carolina’s Black population is not quite as large as Georgia’s, and despite Beasley’s victories in two down-ballot statewide races, some Democrats still harbor doubts about whether she can win in 2022.

Cliff Moone, a Hickory retiree who has held several party leadership posts including a seat on the Democratic National Committee, said after a Jackson town hall that he is prepared to support whichever Democrat is ultimately nominated. But he said he believed Jackson’s grass-roots approach gave Democrats the best chance to win — particularly in light of the party’s midterm turnout challenges.

“Cliff Moone would say that we can elect a Black woman senator from this state. Cliff Moone the politician is still a little unsure about that,” said Moone, who is White — adding that he’d be less unsure were Beasley running in a presidential year.

Many donors and party operatives have clearly gotten over their doubts. While Jackson has raised more money overall, Beasley nearly doubled Jackson’s haul in the quarter that ended June 30 — Beasley’s first. She has also racked up endorsements from key national fundraising groups, including Emily’s List, the Collective PAC, and the fundraising arm of the Congressional Black Caucus. She has also rolled out a steady stream of endorsers, including many of Jackson’s colleagues in the North Carolina legislature, and several Black women serving in Congress.

Morgan Jackson, the consultant, said Beasley’s strong quarter reflects a desire among Democratic donors to turn away from nominating another candidate with Cunningham’s background — an attitude, he said, that makes Beasley the presumptive front-runner. (Jackson’s firm, Nexus Strategies, has worked on Beasley’s prior judicial campaigns but is not aligned in the Senate race.)

“There’s little bit of a hangover from 2020,” he said, adding that Cunningham and Jeff Jackson “are very different people. But are we nominating the same profile again and again and again?”

The Trump team knocks on doors. Biden’s supporters dial phones. Voters in North Carolina see two very different campaigns, each risky.

In an encouraging sign for Democrats, Beasley and Jackson have steered clear of direct attacks on each other — unlike the Republican field, which has spent months attacking one another about their conservative bona fides and their levels of support for Trump.

Responding to Jackson’s implicit critique of her campaign style, Beasley defended her approach to the early stages of her campaign and noted she’s done plenty of traveling and speaking engagements across the state, low-profile as they may be.

“Those are really important conversations, and I would be really dismayed at anybody who discounted those conversations,” Beasley said.

Asked about the surge in endorsements and donations for Beasley, Jackson acknowledged “the symbolic power of her candidacy” and said he plans to make a concrete plan for racial equity a centerpiece of his campaign, while letting his campaign itself make the case to African Americans and the rest of North Carolina’s voters.

“The case is, we’re going to show you a level of energy and transparency and substance that you’re really going to appreciate,” he said. “All I ask is that people watch the campaign.”