ASHEVILLE, N.C. — Cheri Beasley had spent a day last week pinballing around western North Carolina, stumping for the state’s soon-to-be-open Senate seat. At her last event, a brewery in this liberal mountain stronghold, the Democratic candidate eased onto a stool as a moderator asked whether anyone had a question.
When the microphone came to Ann Baxter, she unloaded her concerns. She’d seen an avalanche of ominous ads from Republican Rep. Ted Budd’s camp, tearing into Beasley’s record and painting what Baxter said is an untrue and unflattering picture. But she had seen only two pro-Beasley ads. When, she asked, was Beasley going to fight back?
“When I talk to a lot of my friends, most of them don’t know who she is,” Baxter, an 81-year-old retired hospital administrator, said in an interview after the event. “I think people aren’t hearing her voice.”
The paucity of ads — and money from deep-pocketed political action committees and donors that would fund them — has been an enduring worry for Beasley’s supporters days before voters begin to head to the polls to determine who will replace Sen. Richard Burr (R), with control of the Senate up for grabs.
Since August, Beasley, a former North Carolina Supreme Court chief justice, has been in a dead heat with Budd, a three-term congressman endorsed by former president Donald Trump. North Carolina Democrats have been raising the alarm that without more help, their chance to end a 14-year streak of Senate losses will evaporate.
Last week, a political action committee aligned with Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) announced it was putting $8 million more into North Carolina, and noted that it had already spent $15 million in the race. But Beasley’s backers say those contributions are dwarfed by the $26.38 million that the National Republican Senatorial Committee and the conservative Senate Leadership Fund have spent backing Budd.
Beasley’s supporters say they worry that the woman seeking to become the first Black Senator from North Carolina is receiving only a trickle of the cash from national Democrats that is flowing into key contests — and that an opportunity to retain the Senate is being squandered.
“I hope we don’t wake up in a few weeks and realize, man, if we had just spent some more time, gave some more resources diverted from other places, we could have won North Carolina,” Zeb Smathers, the mayor of Canton, N.C., who introduced Beasley at a stop in nearby Waynesville, said in an interview, adding that the attacks on Beasley in his area seem to be going unanswered.
Smathers said the race is “not getting the national attention for a candidate who is just as strong, if not stronger, in a race that is as winnable if not more winnable than in some other places.”
Beasley, in an interview, said she was not concerned about the disparity in outside spending. And campaign officials note that because she’s outraised Budd — and ads purchased by the campaign don’t cost as much as ads paid for by outside groups — the gap is not as extreme as it seems.
On Saturday, her campaign announced that she had raised $13.3 million in the third fundraising quarter, and it boasted that she had outraised Budd in every quarter — bringing in a total of $29.2 million for the race.
“If anybody’s afraid, it’s Ted Budd and his national Republican allies,” Beasley said in an interview. “I mean, they’re the ones who are spending the millions of dollars against me, and they’re spending that kind of money because they know that we really can win. We’re doing well in this race and really excited that folks have offered a lot of energy in this race.”
On the campaign trail, Beasley has stressed her biography and spoken about a return to civility in Washington. She’s also spoken with urgency about the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, telling voters that if Republicans take control of the Senate, more rights could be stripped away.
After the Republican primary, observers say, Budd has kept a low profile and has sought to downplay his more controversial positions, including expressing support for a nationwide 15-week abortion ban, denying the results of the 2020 president election and calling the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrectionists “patriots standing up.” In an interview, he said no amount of money will help Democrats win because their stances are out of touch with the North Carolinians he’s been talking to.
“I mean, that’s up to them, but they’ve wasted a lot of [outside] money here in the past, and I’m going to do everything I can to make sure the Democrats are still wasting money here,” Budd said in an interview last week. “Because we’re going to run a good campaign and the issues are not on their side. And you can’t overcome bad stances on inflation, crime, education, national security, energy. All five of those issues are on our side and not on the Democratic side.”
In interviews, 27 strategists, consultants, politicians and voters offered a litany of reasons for the lack of national attention on a coveted seat. The Democratic Party’s funding apparatus is trying to defend a large number of seats, and Democrats in high-profile contests are eating up the attention and dollars. Democrats in North Carolina have also endured 14 years of letdowns in Senate races, stoking subtle skepticism about Beasley’s viability. North Carolina hasn’t sent a Democrat to the Senate since Kay Hagan was elected in 2008. That same year, presidential nominee Barack Obama also won the state in the general election.
Beasley has twice won statewide election and lost a third bid in 2020, for chief justice of the Supreme Court, by 401 votes. She has kept the Senate race close mostly on her own, even though her résumé and performance should have brought her attention — and help — a lot earlier, said Stefanie Brown James, co-founder of the Collective PAC, which supports Black candidates.
“Coming into this race, she should have been one who was looked at as a person who has shown that they have the chops to have this sophisticated campaign to win the statewide U.S. Senate race,” Brown James said. “That being said, she has had to almost prove herself over and over and over again.”
Aimy Steele, CEO of the New North Carolina Project, who ran unsuccessfully for a state House seat, said it’s naive for Democrats across the nation to not account for the fact that Black female candidates face stronger head winds.
“The type of support and a level of support is starkly different for Black women, and that’s just a fact,” said Steele, who is Black. “I wish it were just an opinion. It’s a fact. It’s patriarchal, then it’s just the Whiteness of politics. … Now if you take race out of it and gender, oh, she’s the perfect candidate for every investment guru, every business owner who wants to invest, every entity, DSCC, DCCC, all the C’s.”
Some of Beasley’s supporters, including Brown James, say the late-in-coming funding shows an ignorance of the distinct hurdles of running as a Black woman in a Southern state. North Carolina has never elected a Black person to the Senate and has sent only two women to the upper chamber.
Several groups are trying to get her more resources in a year when midterm elections will determine whether Democrats continue to control Congress.
Brown James said she is trying to enlist help from Black Hollywood celebrities to campaign with Beasley, or at least tape ads for her. Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.) and Jon Ossoff (Ga.) campaigned with Beasley this weekend. Democratic Reps. David E. Price and G.K. Butterfield of North Carolina have lobbied the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee to pump more cash into the state.
Butterfield said he recently talked to Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), head of the DSCC. “He tells me that his first obligation is to take care of his incumbents, the Senator Warnocks and the like … and now it’s time to invest in red-to-blue seats in battleground states,” Butterfield said. “And I believe based on my conversation with him that he’s guaranteed that there will be more investment. I certainly hope so.”
With weeks left in the race, Beasley and Budd traveled throughout the state last week, trying to energize their respective bases and put a fine point on the choice voters have.
Beasley has said she’s running a North Carolina-centric campaign and sought to distance herself from the national referendum on the president that midterm elections frequently become. In most events, she stressed her family’s humble origin story, which starts with her grandfather leaving Alabama with 76 cents in his pocket.
Budd and Beasley’s only debate, which was held this month and wasn’t aired in the entire state, featured a clear difference but no flame-throwing. On the campaign trail, Beasley’s most incendiary stinger is telling voters “this Budd’s not for you.”
Budd’s stump speeches last week — and those of guests at his events, including Sen. John Neely Kennedy (R-La.) and Donald Trump Jr. — blasted President Biden and the Democratic Party for rising inflation, increasing crime and what they call out-of-touch policies. On the stump and in their debate, Budd has said Beasley would be “a rubber stamp for Joe Biden.”
Democratic Party insiders, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss national strategy, say their first priority is to defend incumbents in New Hampshire, Nevada, Arizona and Georgia. They also are trying to win Senate races in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, two states Biden won in 2020. Defending incumbents and giving steam to surging campaigns is an annual balancing act for organizations with massive but still finite coffers.
“Cheri Beasley’s strong campaign and record of independence, integrity, and protecting our constitutional freedoms has made this race more competitive by the day, which is why National Republicans are being forced to burn through precious resources to distract from Ted Budd’s extreme record,” JB Poersch, president of the Senate Majority PAC, said in a statement.
DSCC spokesperson Amanda Sherman Baity said the group has helped Beasley from the outset of her general election campaign.
“Cheri Beasley has put Republicans on defense in North Carolina — the DSCC has been proud to provide support and resources to her campaign over the course of the general election and the Democratic eco-system has been spending consistently and aggressively on air in the state,” Baity said in a statement. “North Carolina is a Senate battleground and we view the race as highly competitive.”
But experts say concerns about the viability of a Democratic Senate candidate in North Carolina are based on more than just electoral math. The state’s demographics, increasing urbanization and voter registration totals put it strongly in the purple category. Both the governor and attorney general are Democrats, and there are four Democrats in the Council of State, a collection of 10 statewide elected offices. But a Senate seat has remained just out of reach.
Perhaps the most crushing turnabout for the party came in 2020, when North Carolina’s contest between Democrat Cal Cunningham and Republican Sen. Thom Tillis became the most expensive Senate race in history — with more than $282 million spent. Cunningham, a former state senator, had opened a small lead when he acknowledged sending explicit texts to a woman who was not his wife, shattering his family-man image. The admission unraveled Cunningham’s campaign. Tillis won a month later.
“We’ve been burned so many times with so much money. It’s something I fight every day in talking to folks nationally,” said Morgan Jackson, a Raleigh-based Democratic consultant and a longtime adviser to Gov. Roy Cooper (D). “You come up just short each time. And if you’re in D.C. or New York or California or somewhere outside of the state, you’re looking at it like North Carolina is always the bridesmaid, never the bride.”