Democratic U.S. Senate nominee Cheri Beasley campaigning in Northampton County (Photo: Kirk Ross)

This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch. 

In her attempt to break the Democratic Party’s streak of loses in U.S. Senate races, Cheri Beasley has billed herself as a different kind of Democrat.

Over the past year, perhaps the most convincing case for that has been the stops on her itineraries.

As expected, on the list are the state’s burgeoning urban centers, the core of Democrats’ base. But there have been just as many town halls and meet and greets in small towns and rural zip codes not often visited by statewide candidates.

The former Chief Justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court trails three-term congressman Ted Budd in the most recent polling, but remains within the margin of error, even in a year in which Democrats face strong headwinds.

She’s consistently raised more money than her opponent and, unlike Budd, faced little opposition in the primary. That’s allowed her to cover more ground this year. She spent much of the primary holding listening sessions around the state instead of rallies.

Last week, as part of her “Standing Up for North Carolina” tour Beasley started out in Winston-Salem and finished up Raleigh, two Democratic strongholds. But in between, she worked her way across several northeastern counties, including stops in places that went solidly Republican in 2020.

In June she did the same thing on the other side of the state, holding events in the 13 westernmost counties.

“Often candidates don’t go to the most remote areas of the state, but it really has been important to me,” Beasley said in an interview during a recent stop. “I mean, we are a people powered campaign.”

Beasley’s campaign insists the strategy has allowed her to build local networks and connect with voters and their concerns.

She’s made community colleges a regular part of each tour. Last Tuesday, she was at Halifax Community College in Weldon, walking the grounds with instructors and administrators in 90 degree heat as they detailed a list of needed upgrades and expansion plans.

“I’ve been a judge for a long time and I’ve been a statewide elected official for over a decade, having had two successful statewide elections and it is important to go to all communities across the state,” she said after the campus tour.

Kitchen table issues and the Supreme Court

Her pitch against Budd is effectiveness over partisanship.

“You know, I don’t really know that people are as divided as pundits would have us believe that we are,” she said. “Regardless of party affiliation, we are all committed to working hard for our families and for our communities and for the institutions around us.”

In the current climate, running against partisanship gets a good reception.

“We live in a really diverse state, and even contiguous counties have differences and I think it’s really important to respect those differences and to appreciate that one of the commonalities is that people are really tired of Washington.”

Beasley, who if elected would be the state’s first African-American senator, isn’t relying on the historic nature of her candidacy to carry her with Black voters. Lately, she’s canvassed in African-American neighborhoods and dropped in for talks at barbershops.

“That outreach is hugely important,” she said. “And it’s important that we’ve also been reaching out to Latino communities and AAPI communities as well. We want them to know that I really am listening to people in all communities about why this election is so important.”

At an event last week billed as a “community conversation” at the Northampton Memorial Library in Jackson, Beasley got an effusive welcome from local officials, most of whom still call her “Judge.”

While her introductory remarks were mainly focused on kitchen table issues she leaned into concerns about the future of civil rights following the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent ruling in the Dobbs case that ended constitutional protection for abortion rights.

“This Supreme Court has been very clear,” she said. “For all the ways in which we and the people who have come before us have fought and literally put their lives on the line for civil rights in the broadest sense of that term, it is all at stake. This is the first time in this nation’s history that constitutionally protected rights have been taken away and if it can happen once, it can happen again.”

Looking for votes in all 100 counties

Northampton County turned out in support in her last statewide race, her 2020 re-election campaign for Chief Justice, which she lost by 401 votes out of more than 5 million cast.

Losing by the closest margin in state history was cold comfort, she told the audience in Northampton.

African-American turnout will be crucial this year for Beasley. The high water mark for African-American turnout in North Carolina is 73 percent in Barack Obama’s first win in 2008. It has steadily drifted down since, but increased slightly in 2020 to 68 percent. In non-presidential years turnout statewide falls among all demographics. African-American turnout did rise in 2018 over 2014, but remained below 50 percent.

Charlotte-based political consultant Doug Wilson, who worked for the 2008 Obama campaign in South Carolina and Kay Hagan’s unsuccessful re-election campaign in 2014, sees a similarity between Beasley’s tours and Obama’s 2008 “go everywhere” strategy.

It’s a big divergence, he said, from a long held Democratic strategy of focusing on 25 key counties in the state’s urban core.

“What that did was a cause Democrats to over perform to a certain extent in these urban areas, but completely get crushed in rural areas,” he said. That’s ultimately hurt Democrats in statewide federal races, he said.

“What I think what the campaign is doing is realizing that despite the big cities, North Carolina at the end of the day is not New York.”

Wilson said it’s a similar to the playbook that put Georgia Senator Raphael Warnock over the top in 2020. Increasing Democratic turnout outside the major cities, won’t flip those rural counties, he said, but it will help build the statewide margin.

Beasley’s northeast sweep makes sense, he said, both because the area is rich in African-American voters, but also because it’s a region with a long-held grievance of been forgotten by both Raleigh and Washington. Getting out to those neglected places could make the difference.

“This is what the Obama campaign did in ’08,” he said. “That’s why at this point Obama has been the only Democratic presidential campaign to win North Carolina. He was going everywhere.”

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