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U.S. Senate race returns to form

This year’s U.S. Senate race in North Carolina is shaping up to be a highly competitive and expensive one — which should surprise no one who’s lived in our state or watched our politics for more than an instant.

The John Locke Foundation’s just-released Civitas Poll has the Republican nominee, U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, and the Democratic nominee, former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, tied at 42 percent each. Other polls show statistically insignificant leads for one or the other.

Consider recent history. Thom Tillis won his first Senate race in 2014 by defeating Kay Hagan by 1.5 percentage points, or fewer than 50,000 votes. Tillis won then reelection in 2020 over Cal Cunningham by 1.8 points. As for Richard Burr, whose retirement set up this year’s Budd-Beasley race, he won just 51 percent of the vote in his final Senate victory in 2016.

North Carolina’s Senate races have long been competitive and expensive. Hagan, Elizabeth Dole, John Edwards, Lauch Faircloth, Jesse Helms — when they won, their margins may have been more than just slivers of the vote (though rarely reaching double digits) but each had to fight hard against credible and well-funded opponents. Each ran in a state where ticket-splitting could still prove decisive.

Earlier this year, there were indicators not just of a potential red wave but of a red tsunami in North Carolina. As recently as June, the Civitas Poll found double-digit leads for the GOP in generic-ballot questions about congressional and legislative races.

But longtime observers of North Carolina politics expressed caution about these indicators, rightly pointing out that Republicans had never enjoyed so large a polling advantage — even in the wave elections of 1994 and 2010 — and that a state where Democrats control the governorship, the state supreme court, and many other offices is clearly not a place where Republicans can take electoral success for granted.

The latest Civitas Poll, taken in mid-August, exhibits the very tightening these pundits predicted. Republicans still enjoy a generic-ballot edge, five points for General Assembly and three points for Congress. Their candidates are also leading their Democratic opponents in two critical races for North Carolina Supreme Court. But these margins are all smaller than they were in June. They look more normal.

As for Budd, he continues to trail the generic Republican ticket by about four points while Beasley is much closer to the generic Democratic vote. As I observed a couple of months ago, Budd has not yet done what it will take to gather back into the fold wayward Republicans who either strongly preferred other GOP candidates in the primary, strongly dislike Budd’s close association with former president Donald Trump, or both.

This population of GOP-leaning voters isn’t very big, admittedly — but their reticence could still send Cheri Beasley to the U.S. Senate. That’s my point here. In North Carolina, the electoral bases of the two major political parties are close to even. That leaves little room for error. If a Senate candidate can’t attract soft partisans and true swing voters, a focus on turning out hard-core partisans is a plan to lose.

Roy Cooper isn’t governor because of massive Democratic turnout. Tillis and Burr aren’t senators because of massive Republican turnout. Each won his last election to his current job in an election cycle in which the opposing party also won key victories.

I continue to believe Republicans will generally fare better than Democrats in 2022. Although the end of Roe v. Wade may have energized pro-choice voters in the Democratic base more than it energized pro-life voters in the Republican base, I still think issues such as inflation, lawlessness and education are more salient to more voters. And while the GOP has done its best to lose winnable races for Senate and governor around the country by nominating a remarkable assortment of cranks, some will win, anyway. President Joe Biden and many of his policies are deeply unpopular.

Neither Budd nor Beasley is a shoo-in. Par for the course.

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John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history (