Stage to be set for momentous 175-day sprint to Nov. 8
Election Day for the 2022 primary arrives tomorrow, but in North Carolina the November campaign has already begun for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat, a race that is expected to be one of the costliest and combative in state history.
Early voting ended Saturday with turnout below the 2020 presidential primary, but well ahead of recent mid-year elections.
Democrat Cheri Beasley, former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, is cruising to victory without significant opposition, while in the final sprint the top two GOP contenders continue to pummel each other.
Three-term Rep. Ted Budd, backed by former President Donald Trump and heavily supported by the Club for Growth Super PAC, has eased ahead of former governor Pat McCrory in the most recent polls. But McCrory, supported by a more traditional GOP coalition, including his former state budget director, conservative financier Art Pope, remains in striking distance.
Budd and two super PACs that have poured $18 million into ads here have painted McCrory as too liberal, and bashed his record as governor. McCrory has labeled Budd a “Washington insider” and keeps ratcheting up his attempts to link the three-term congressman to everything from inflation to Madison Cawthorn and George Soros.
At least one and possibly both of them are likely to pull at least 30% of the vote, eliminating the chance of July runoff.
Earlier this year chances of a July runoff were on the rise, but the latest polls show both former Rep. Mark Walker and author and combat veteran Marjorie Eastman are registering well below double digits.
All the marbles
With the U.S. Senate evenly split, each tick of the clock in the primary cycle alters the calculus on the potential for Republicans to take control of the chamber. They would need to hold their current seats and pick up one among the 22 that are up this year.
Two-thirds of those are currently held by Republicans, including three-term Sen. Richard Burr, who announced in the spring of 2021 that he would not seek re-election.
A win by Democrats in North Carolina would substantially raise the bar for the GOP, even though mid-term elections in a president’s first term usually result in losses for the incumbent’s party.
In addition to North Carolina, there are Senate primaries on Tuesday in Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Idaho and Oregon.
Big spends a comin’
With so much on the line, the race is drawing interest and dollars. And ads. Lots and lots of ads.
Last week, the National Republican Senatorial Committee, launched their first attack ad against Beasley, part of at least $24 million set aside to win the seat.
Beasley’s campaign hasn’t wasted any time, either, despite the yet unsettled issue of who she’ll face in the fall.
An email blast on Tax Day (April 18 this year) charged that Budd and McCrory back a tax plan proposed by Florida Sen. Rick Scott, which Democrats claim would raise taxes on middle income families and Social Security recipients.
For now, national analysts are tilting the race toward the GOP candidate, citing the traditionally difficult mid-term cycle for members of the president’s party and President Joe Biden’s approval rating in the state.
In an update ahead of Election Day, Cook Political Report, which shifted the race from ‘tossup’ to ‘leans Republican’ in February, said Budd is likely to hold off McCrory’s challenge saying “all signs point to Budd” and pointing to a recent Emerson College poll showing the congressman ahead by seven points.
“The general may be closer, but given the environment, we are keeping it in the ‘Lean Republican’ column for now,” Cook’s Jessica Taylor said on Friday in her primary preview.
Beasley’s supporters have pushed back on the idea that the headwinds are too strong for her to overcome. An internal poll released by the campaign last week showed her in a statistical tie with both Budd and McCrory. She also continues to out-raise her opponents, taking in more than $1 million in April after starting the month with $5.1 million cash on hand.
Despite having little opposition, she’s kept a busy travel schedule, mostly meeting voters in smaller groups rather holding rallies. Last week she spoke at Catawba Valley Community College and held “Conversations with Cheri” in Alamance, Alexander, Davidson, Lincoln and Person counties.
Turnout so far
With a high profile Senate race and several contested federal and state legislative primaries on the ballot, early voting turnout hit record levels for a mid-term election over the weekend.
By the close of the early voting on Saturday, 576,520 voters had already cast their votes either in-person or through the mail.
Direct comparisons to past mid-terms are complicated by the 2018 cycle, a so-called “blue moon” election with no statewide races during which 295,276 voted prior to Election Day. Going back farther, population shifts and the number of competitive races make comparisons even more difficult. Regardless, 2022’s turnout is definitely different.
This year’s totals for early voting even top the presidential year primaries in 2008 and 2012.
An analysis published Monday by political science professors Michael Bitzer of Catawba College and Western Carolina University’s Chris Cooper on their Old North State Politics blog called 2022 “a significant departure from what has been the norm for mid-term primary elections.”
The analysis notes that the increase is driven at least in part by the growing popularity of early voting and estimates that roughly 45% of the votes are in so far.
About 25% of the total has come from unaffiliated voters, now the state’s largest group of voters. In North Carolina, Democrats and Republicans aren’t allowed to vote in the other party’s primary, but unaffiliated voters can choose to vote in either primary.
The hotly contested GOP primary for the Senate and the high profile NC-11 race pitting state Sen. Chuck Edwards against incumbent Madison Cawthorn are drawing in unaffiliated voters as are contested Democratic races in NC-4 and NC-1. So far, 62% of unaffiliated primary voters statewide have picked the GOP ballot.
Bitzer and Cooper said it’s clear the competitive races are drawing in unaffiliated voters. In the NC-4 60% of unaffiliated voters are choosing the Democratic ballot and 70% are picking the GOP primary in NC-11.
“This suggests that unaffiliated voters are responding to the dynamics of their districts,” they wrote.