This story originally published online at NC Policy Watch.
The latest polls show that the gap between Cheri Beasley and Ted Budd continues to narrow, while the candidates’ differences on key issues have sharpened ahead of what could be their one and only debate.
Budd, who avoided debates during an extended and contentious GOP primary, agreed to go toe-to-toe with Beasley, who faced nominal opposition and no debates in the Democratic primary, on October 7. The event will air on Spectrum News and be moderated by Tim Boyum.
Both campaigns are benefiting from a fresh infusion of outside spending, including $3.4 million for Budd from Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell’s Senate Leadership PAC and $1 million for Beasley from Senate Majority leader Chuck Schumer’s campaign account.
Although the race is clearly tightening, it hasn’t received as much national attention as other key Senate races in the 2022 cycle.
That could change this week with former President Donald Trump’s visit to Wilmington on Friday for an event with Budd and other GOP candidates. There’s also a fresh set of polls showing a race that could go either way in what’s become a more favorable environment for Democrats.
This summer, predictions about control of the Senate flipped and despite traditional headwinds against the president’s party in this cycle, Democrats are now slightly favored to hold on to their 50-50 majority.
Much of that shift came as candidates backed by Trump faltered after winning primaries in Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, along with backlash against the U.S. Supreme Court’s Dobbs decision, which ended the constitutional right to abortion.
Beasley and Budd differ widely on an array of issues, but since Dobbs was handed down in late June, the contrast between the two on abortion has intensified. Beasley came out strongly against the decision this spring and has made it a key part of her stump speech. Meanwhile, Budd recently announced that he is co-sponsoring the House version of a bill introduced this month by Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina that would institute a nationwide federal ban on abortion after 15 weeks.
In late August, Jessica Taylor, Cook Political Report’s Governor and Senate elections editor, changed Cook’s ratings for races in Pennsylvania, Colorado and Utah, citing the new dynamics. She also said North Carolina’s race, which moved from a toss-up to leaning Republican last February, was on the cusp of moving back.
In an interview last week, Taylor said the race still leans in favor of Budd, but she’s watching for clues in new polling to assess Beasley’s chances in a state that has been a heartbreak for Democrats for most of this century.
“Democrats suddenly have good pickup opportunities in addition to playing defense,” she said. “Pennsylvania is Number One and North Carolina and Ohio are right there behind them at this point.”
North Carolina probably has a more favorable climate for Democrats than Ohio, she said, but the race here hasn’t had the same dynamic as states where GOP candidates have been damaged by scandals and controversial statements both past and present. In Ohio, like Pennsylvania and Arizona, Trump-backed candidates have faltered.
Budd has benefited by running a more mainstream Republican campaign, she said.
“He doesn’t have years of him saying controversial things on a medical show,” she said. “I think he’s someone that is just sort of seen as a generic Republican. Obviously, Beasley wants to try to change that.”
Budd has, however, drawn criticism in recent days after both The New York Times and Washington Post reported that he was among a group of GOP candidates who have indicated they might not accept the election results this fall.
On Tuesday, WRAL.com reported that Budd had indicated that he will accept the results, though Budd noted that this could change if “Democrats do something to generate a cause [for concern].”
How much the race has shifted over the summer is still hard to say, Taylor said. “I see Beasley out there a lot, but can Budd just rest on the national environment? I think that’s the question for the coming months because the environment is still slightly favorable for Republicans, but not in any way that it was before.”
Two polls new polls out this week also show a neck-and-neck race.
On Tuesday, an Emerson College/The Hill poll of 1000 “somewhat and very likely voters” showed Budd with 46 percent and Beasley at 43 percent, with 9 percent undecided and a margin of error of 3 percent. When asked who they expect will win, 44 percent said Beasley and 56 percent said Budd.
Budd dropped two percentage points and Beasley gained two percentage points since the last Emerson College poll in May.
A new Civiqs poll released Thursday put Beasley ahead slightly at 49 percent and Budd at 48 percent. The poll of 586 likely voters listed only 2 percent of voters as unsure with a 5.5 percent margin of error.
The polls showed only marginal traction for Libertarian Party candidate Shannon Bray and Green Party candidate Matthew Hoh who were at or below 1 percent in both surveys.
Turnout early signs
More than 3,500 ballots are already on the books in the 2022 general election. North Carolina’s absentee ballot schedule puts it first in the nation.
The early sift of votes comes with plenty of caveats, but could point to at least some trends ahead of the start of early voting later in October.
Political science professors Chris Cooper at Western Carolina University and Michael Bitzer at Catawba College have launched a weekly breakdown of early voting on the Old North State Politics blog.
Their caution on the early round of votes reads: “As political scientists who study North Carolina politics and especially voter and elections data, we can tell you the ‘fool’s errand’ of thinking mail-in votes will give us any indication of the final tally: in 2020, the mail-in votes went 70 percent for Joe Biden, who lost the state ultimately by 1.3 percent.”
The chart-by-chart breakdown of the turnout shows an increase over 2018 at this point. Turnout has grown in mid-term elections in the state and even though it was a “blue moon” election with no statewide federal race, turnout in 2018 jumped by nearly a third over 2014 to 53 percent, the highest tally in the last 50 years.
In his initial look at the first batch of votes, Bitzer wrote that the totals are well above 2018, but still far below this same point in the 2020 presidential election cycle, when the vote-by-mail was driven up by the pandemic.
“The take-away for me at this early point in the ballot game: We’re seeing a substantial uptick in returned ballots from the last mid-term election, which means there is some interest and engagement amongst these early voters,” Bitzer wrote.
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