Are Democrats Heading For Another Disappointment In North Carolina?

Are Democrats Heading For Another Disappointment In North Carolina?

For Democrats, North Carolina has recently been more of a white whale than a bird in hand. No Democrat has won a statewide federal race there since 2008, when former President Barack Obama narrowly won the state by less than 1 percentage point, and the late Democratic Sen. Kay Hagan carried the state by a little over 8 points.

And it’s not like North Carolina is a solidly red state. It has a partisan lean of R+4.8, putting it in the company of other swing states with competitive Senate races like Wisconsin and Nevada. Since 2008, Democrats have been successful at the statewide level, with wins in both the governor’s and attorney general’s races in 2016 and 2020. But despite some incredibly close, single-digit margins in U.S. Senate races in both 2016 and 2020, Tar Heel Democrats haven’t been able to break through since Hagan’s win in 2008.5 In other words, futile efforts to recreate the magic of 2008 in North Carolina — at least in presidential and U.S. Senate races — have consistently fallen flat. And although this year’s Senate race could be the leap Democrats are hoping for, it’s likely, at least according to our metrics, to be another disappointment.

According to FiveThirtyEight’s midterm election forecast, Republican Rep. Ted Budd currently has around a 2-in-3 chance of beating Democrat Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr.6 That doesn’t mean the race is a done deal: Our polling average shows a much more competitive race, with the most recent surveys showing the two candidates neck and neck.

But the idea that the race could be close shouldn’t comfort Democrats too much. North Carolina is no stranger to close Senate matchups. In fact, in the past three Senate elections, the Democratic candidate has never lost by more than 6 percentage points.

Small multiple line charts showing North Carolina’s U.S. Senate and presidential race margins, from 2008-2020, to show how the two-party vote margins have been in the single digits since at least 2012.
Small multiple line charts showing North Carolina’s U.S. Senate and presidential race margins, from 2008-2020, to show how the two-party vote margins have been in the single digits since at least 2012.

So given Democrats’ struggles to win federal races in the state, let’s run through a couple reasons why Beasley could be the first federal candidate in almost 15 years to win a statewide race — and why she could be yet another Democrat to narrowly lose a Senate race in North Carolina.

For starters, Beasley, who already has experience running and winning a statewide race in North Carolina, has so far maintained a significant financial edge over Budd. Her impressive fundraising skills have allowed her to spend over $10 million on TV ads, according to The Cook Political Report, which cited data from AdImpact. That’s in contrast to nearly $2 million from Budd, according to the outlet.

Beasley is also hoping that the state’s demographics will work in her favor. She hasn’t been shy in admitting that she hopes she can gin up support among Black voters, who make up about 22 percent of the citizen voting-age population. And if Beasley wins, she’d become the state’s first Black U.S. senator. 

“The Democratic Party has been trying hard to put forward candidates who reflect the diversity of the country,” said Whitney Manzo, a professor of political science at North Carolina’s Meredith College. “And I think the party is banking on [Beasley] appealing to voters of color, with the hope that she will energize voters in the same way that Barack Obama did in 2008.”

The increased salience of abortion access following the Supreme Court decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization might also give Beasley a lift — something that other Democrats in competitive states are similarly hoping for.

In a September Emerson College poll of likely North Carolina voters, 59 percent of respondents said they were much more likely to vote in the 2022 elections due to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. Twelve percent of respondents also said that abortion was their No. 1 issue heading into the midterm elections — a figured dwarfed by the 41 percent who identified the economy as their key issue. Still, considering the tightening race between Beasley and Budd, abortion access alone might be enough to give the Democrat a significant edge at the polls. Beasley, for her part, has repeatedly contrasted her and Budd’s views on abortion access to mobilize her base. Manzo added that abortion rights in particular could help Beasley woo Republican women — particularly those living in the state’s cities and large metros — who weren’t in favor of the Supreme Court’s decision.

Abortion is an important issue for North Carolina voters

Share of North Carolina voters who said that each of the following issues is most important in determining their vote in November

Issue Percent
Economy (jobs, inflation, taxes) 40.5%
Threats to democracy 14.3
Abortion access 12.1
Health care 11.1
Something else 8.1
Education 4.2
Immigration 4.0
Crime 3.3
COVID-19 2.2
Housing affordability 0.4

Conducted from Sept. 15-16 among a sample of 1,000 somewhat or very likely voters.

Source: Emerson college/cbs17/The Hill poll

But there are arguably more factors working against the Democrat. For one, even though Budd has trailed Beasley in fundraising, he’s received an onslaught of outside help that Beasley just hasn’t seen so far. Earlier this month, the Senate Leadership Fund, a Republican super PAC aligned with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, began running ads against Beasley that are said to total $16 million. Meanwhile, the equivalent Democratic spending arm, helmed by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, hasn’t spent nearly as much on Beasley. Recent estimates show that the Democratic Senate PAC has spent a little under $2 million supporting Beasley and another $2.7 million opposing Budd.

“This Senate race has kind of been a sleeper or second-tier kind of a race. It feels like North Carolina and Florida have taken a backseat to Pennsylvania, Georgia, Ohio and Wisconsin,” said Michael Bitzer, a professor of politics and history at Catawba College, which is also located in North Carolina. “To me, it seems like Beasley is doing everything she needs to do to be competitive and potentially win. But without a financial investment from the Democratic Party, I’m not sure that she’s going to make it across the finish line.”

The high number of unaffiliated voters in North Carolina could also work against the Democrat. According to a 2022 study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, over 2.4 million of the state’s registered voters (about two-thirds of the electorate) are not affiliated with either major political party. According to Manzo, these voters do tend to fall somewhere between Republicans and Democrats, but veer slightly more conservative. “I would not see the unaffiliated population of North Carolina as a giant pool of potential support for Cheri Beasley,” she said. 

North Carolina has also seen an increase in its nonwhite population from 2000 through 2018, according to the Pew Research Center. In 2018, 31 percent of North Carolina’s eligible voters were nonwhite — an increase of 6 percentage points over the course of almost two decades. While, in theory, this trend should boost Democrats, who tend to do better with nonwhite voters, demographics are not destiny in American politics, and it’s not clear that Democrats are making inroads with these groups. In 2020, more Hispanic voters in North Carolina were registered as independent/other (89,958) than Democrats (85,538) or Republicans (43,126). Asian American voters in the state are largely unaffiliated, too, but lean Democratic. 

And, of course, while North Carolina does have a large Black voting-age population, there hasn’t been a concerted effort to get these voters to the polls, according to Bitzer. “In Georgia, you saw very focused and intentional registration and mobilization efforts helmed by Stacey Abrams,” he said. “But nobody’s really done something equivalent in North Carolina. Some groups have been trying, but there hasn’t been that real long-term investment and focus that I think differentiates North Carolina from Georgia.”

Meanwhile, white voters are even harder for Democrats to win. While exit polls in recent elections suggest that white voters in North Carolina are somewhat less firmly in the GOP camp than in, say, Georgia, they still lean quite Republican. In 2016, former President Donald Trump won 63 percent of white voters in North Carolina compared with Democrat Hillary Clinton’s 32 percent. That same year in Georgia, however, he won white voters by a much larger margin: 75 percent to 21 percent. In the last presidential election, however, President Biden narrowly improved on Clinton’s margin among white voters in Georgia (30 percent to Trump’s 69 percent), but didn’t improve much in North Carolina, only winning 33 percent of the state’s white voters compared to Trump’s 66 percent.

Plus, North Carolina has a large number of voters who are evangelical Protestants, who are both more likely to both vote Republican and have conservative attitudes toward certain racial issues. According to exit poll data from CNN, about one-third (35 percent) of North Carolina’s voters identified as born-again or evangelical Christians in 2020. Of that number, 86 percent backed Trump, compared with 14 percent who supported Biden. “Particularly in rural North Carolina and in the surrounding suburban counties, they make up a core constituency of the base of the Republican Party in the state,” Bitzer said.

And, lastly, similar to other Democrats in competitive races this fall, Biden’s low approval ratings could drag down Beasley. According to a September High Point University poll, only 34 percent of North Carolinians said they approved of Biden’s job performance as president. More than half of surveyed residents (53 percent) said they disapprove of the job Biden is doing. (It’s worth noting, though, that Beasley did run about 1.4 points ahead of Biden in 2020, when she lost reelection as Supreme Court Chief Justice by 401 total votes.)

In the end, we still expect this race to be a close one given past Senate margins in North Carolina, and the fact that Beasley is a fairly strong candidate. That September Emerson College survey found Budd and Beasley practically neck and neck in terms of their favorability numbers: Forty-eight percent of voters in North Carolina had a favorable view of the Republican compared with 46 percent who felt the same way about Beasley. Their unfavorability numbers were about the same, too: Thirty-eight percent viewed Budd unfavorably versus 40 percent for Beasley. 

So all hope isn’t lost for Beasley. Since Democrats’ dreams of winning a North Carolina Senate race since 2008 has been a sort of pipe dream, it’s unclear whether she can pull through. But the possibility is still there. “In this state, anything could happen,” Bitzer told me. “So who knows?”

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