Column: The little-known Senate race that could make a big difference for Democrats

Woman speaking into a microphone at a lectern
Cheri Beasley, North Carolina’s former Supreme Court chief justice, is now the state’s Democratic nominee for Senate.
(Ben McKeown / Associated Press)

If Democrats can keep control of just one chamber of Congress in November’s midterm elections, as many analysts have long predicted, it’s best that the house they’re favored to hold is the Senate.

The Senate has the power over a president’s judicial nominees. God forbid that Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell gets another turn at blocking a Democratic president’s picks for the federal bench, and thus ends President Biden’s effort to offset the right-wing tilt to that third branch of government.

All year Democrats have despaired of keeping their House majority, though a few politicos in and out of the party are starting to sound optimistic, given a spate of positive breaks and the backlash against the Supreme Court’s overturning of abortion rights. The Senate, however, has been another story all along: Democrats have been cautiously confident — and Republicans fretful — that they could hold their 50 seats and perhaps even add to them.


To that end, it’s fitting that one of the candidates who could help keep Democrats in power to confirm judges is herself the former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, Cheri Beasley.

Beasley is running against North Carolina Rep. Ted Budd, a gun store owner who won former President Trump’s endorsement last year. “A lot of you don’t know him well,” Trump said of Budd when he conferred his blessing. “He will fight like hell.”

Fight like hell — just what Trump told the crowd on Jan. 6, 2021. Indeed, after that day’s Capitol rampage, Budd voted against certifying Biden’s election. He said the insurrectionists were “just patriots standing up.”

Trump was right about Budd’s low profile. Beasley, too, isn’t well known. She’s, well, judicious rather than provocative, and he’s been merely a backbench belligerent for Trump in Congress, overshadowed by blowhards like his fellow North Carolinian Madison Cawthorn. That’s one reason this contest hasn’t gotten more national attention.

That should change. If Beasley wins, it would be a Democratic pickup: She and Budd are vying to replace retiring GOP Sen. Richard M. Burr.

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Beasley, who would be the only Black woman in the Senate if elected, is a proven vote-getter. She was first appointed to the state judiciary in 1999 by a Democratic governor and then twice elected to the district court seat. In 2008 she won election to the state Court of Appeals, defeating an incumbent judge.

Another Democratic governor named Beasley to a vacancy on the state’s Supreme Court in 2012, and two years later she won statewide election to the seat. In 2019, the current Democratic governor, Roy Cooper, appointed her as chief justice. While she lost reelection by just 401 votes in 2020, Beasley still got about 11,000 more votes than Biden received in North Carolina.

The bigger Senate attention-getters have been races in Arizona, Nevada, Georgia and, to a lesser extent, New Hampshire, where incumbent Democrats — Mark Kelly, Catherine Cortez Masto, Raphael Warnock and Maggie Hassan, respectively — are fighting to keep their seats. Kelly, Cortez Masto and Warnock all lead in the polls over their weak Trumpist rivals.

Then there’s Wisconsin, where MAGAt conspiracist Sen. Ron Johnson is one of the few Republican incumbents who’s endangered.

Also higher-profile than North Carolina’s Senate contest are the open-seat races in Ohio and Pennsylvania, which feature Democrats with records as populist champions of the working class — Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman — against celebrity converts to Trumpism, bestselling author J.D. Vance in Ohio and TV personality and crudite fancier Mehmet Oz.

As Politico reported Thursday, “Republicans’ hopes of retaking the Senate rest on a slate of Donald Trump’s hand-picked nominees. And, across the board, they appear to be struggling.”

Budd has struggled less than the other Trumpian Republicans, yet he still has just a slight lead in the few public polls on the race; Beasley led in a June poll. Analysts call the contest a toss-up. North Carolina is no red state; the governor has been a Democrat for 26 of the last 30 years.

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As usual, however, Democrats in North Carolina and elsewhere have a bigger challenge than Republicans in getting their voters out for non-presidential elections, especially those who are young and Black. The party’s recent gains may help send more Democrats to the polls — enactment of the Inflation Reduction Act, with its healthcare benefits for lower drug costs, insulin price caps for Medicare recipients and Obamacare subsidies; as well as new laws providing care to veterans exposed to toxins and making unprecedented, job-creating investments in the computer chip industry.

As crucial as what Democrats have done is what Republicans are doing to themselves: opposing those popular measures, taking extreme antiabortion positions and keeping the unpopular Trump front and center.

The bombshells from the Jan. 6 House select committee’s hearings have contributed to the party’s stench of antidemocratic extremism. The year’s shooting massacres have turned many voters against pro-gun politicians; Budd voted against the bipartisan gun control law, even as both sitting Republican senators from North Carolina backed it.

Still, inflation remains high and Democrats know an onslaught of well-financed Republican attacks are coming. Beasley, for example, already has weathered false, racially tinged assaults much like those Senate Republicans leveled against Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson in her confirmation hearing; in each case, Republicans distorted the Black jurists’ records and prior careers as public defenders to paint them as soft on criminals.

But here’s the thing: Jackson won confirmation. And Beasley can win election. It’s indicative of the improved climate for Democrats that they can, in fact, look to a place like North Carolina for a possible Senate win. The state deserves better in the Senate, and so do we.