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Former chief justice joins Senate race; Mandy Cohen recruitment is under way

RALEIGH — Former N.C. Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley has formally announced she’s running for U.S. Senate on the Democratic side in hopes of replacing three-term Republican incumbent Richard Burr, who is retiring.

The announcement was not unexpected, as Carolina Journal reported Beasley’s plans in February.

In a video announcement, Beasley, the first African-American female to serve as chief justice on the state Supreme Court, focused on opportunity.

“No door should ever be closed to you. With hard work and determination, you can accomplish anything,” she said in the video.

“There are times when people tell you that you can’t do something. And really it has more to do with the confinement of their own ability to see it.”

Beasley is the fifth Democrat to jump in the race, joining former state Sen. Erica Smith, current state Sen. Jeff Jackson, virologist Richard Watkins and Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton in the field.

With Smith, Watkins, and Beasley, three of the five announced candidates are African-American.

Beasley is not the only big name circulating. According to prominent Democrat consultant Brad Crone, “An active effort to recruit Dr. Mandy Cohen into the Democratic primary for U.S. Senate is now underway.”

Cohen is the current secretary of the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services. She has been the public face of much of North Carolina’s pandemic response for more than a year.

“She would be a competitive force; she has instant name recognition,” said Crone. “She has been a top lieutenant to Gov. Cooper and could tap into his base of support … She would be considered more of a moderate candidate that could compete well in North Carolina’s more rural areas.”

Cohen is an internal medicine physician and has experience leading complex health organizations. Before coming to North Carolina, she was chief operating officer and chief of staff at the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. She served as a senior adviser to the Obama administration working to implement the Affordable Care Act.

Meanwhile, Beasley’s video is light on policy or positions, but contains her background story. It is built on a theme of “opening doors.”

“Whether it’s health care, education, or the ability to find work that supports a family and retire with dignity, too often Washington only responds to the well-connected. As we come out of this pandemic, now more than ever, that needs to end,” Beasley said.

“There is no doubt that Justice Beasley will be the frontrunner for the Democrats,” said Crone. “However, the field is still developing and could change dramatically if HHS Secretary Mandy Cohen enters the race. Jeff Jackson, Erica Smith, and Rett Newton will all be fighting for attention and support bases as the field sorts itself out.”

“Cheri Beasley’s entry into the race adds an interesting dynamic for Democratic primary voters,” said Mitch Kokai, John Locke Foundation senior political analyst. “She’s new to campaigning for an openly political position, and she has no experience as a legislator that would help her adapt to the U.S. Senate. But she has won multiple statewide judicial elections and came within roughly 400 votes of winning another last fall. Having been a chief justice of the state’s highest court could give her a level of gravitas that other Democrats will have a hard time matching. She certainly offers a stark contrast to Jeff Jackson — whose status as a white man might put him out of step with the most enthusiastic Democratic activists.”

Beasley for the Democrats and former Gov. Pat McCrory for the Republicans are the only two candidates in the Senate race who previously have won statewide contests. Beasley captured the N.C. Court of Appeals race in 2008 and state Supreme Court in 2014. McCrory won the 2012 governor’s race but lost his re-election bid in 2016 to Cooper.

Beasley and McCrory also have the unique distinction of being on the losing end of two of the closest statewide political contests in N.C. history. Beasley lost November’s chief justice race to Republican Paul Newby by 400 votes out of nearly 5.4 million cast. McCrory lost to Cooper in 2016 by 11,000 votes out of 4.6 million cast, or 0.22 percent.