Control of the Senate may come down to the ultimate toss-up state, North Carolina, where former Judge Cheri Beasley and Republican Rep. Ted Budd are locked in an incredibly close race that has been overshadowed by mudslinging and hand-wringing in other marquee matchups.
Ms. Beasley, a Democrat, is the first Black woman to serve as chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court. She also counts herself as one of the “flippable five” who could pad the Democrats’ razor-thin majority in the upper chamber of Congress.
The other four races feature Republican incumbents fighting to hold seats in Wisconsin and Florida and untested challengers running in Ohio and Pennsylvania.
“I’m joining forces with Mandela Barnes, Val Demings, John Fetterman and Tim Ryan as ‘The Flippable Five’ to make sure that we get this done in November,” Ms. Beasley’s campaign said in a September fundraising pitch. “Our races are Democrats’ five best chances to flip a seat this year, and each of us is fully committed to ending the filibuster and making the Senate work for families across this country.”
Ms. Beasley will have to defeat Mr. Budd, a Republican who has represented the state’s 13th Congressional District since 2017 and cleared the primary field this year with an assist from former President Donald Trump, who won North Carolina in both of his presidential campaigns.
The candidates are vying to replace Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who is retiring after three terms.
The race hasn’t received much national attention. It doesn’t have the eyebrow-raising negativity of the contest in Pennsylvania, where Mr. Fetterman and Mehmet Oz, the Republican nominee, have fought over the correct name for a plate of raw vegetables and whether the Democrat’s recent stroke is off-limits for debate.
North Carolina will attract eyeballs in the final months of the campaign. Both candidates are fighting for every inch of support after a Civitas poll found that Mr. Budd and Ms. Beasley each received 42.3% support.
“It’s a dead heat. There are, of course, many races every cycle where candidates are within the margin of error, but I don’t recall anywhere the candidates have polled with the exact same number,” said Christopher A. Cooper, a politics professor at Western Carolina University. “At least in terms of the polling, it doesn’t get any closer than this.”
The tight race reflects North Carolina’s position in American politics. It has a Democratic governor in Roy Cooper, and pundits say the state is trending blue. Yet Mr. Trump won the state in 2016 and 2020, undercutting the idea of a sea change.
“For the past decade, we’ve had close statewide election after statewide election, though with Republican senators consistently winning and a consistent Republican legislature — meanwhile, having a two-term Democratic governor and a Democratic state Supreme Court,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor at North Carolina State University.
Analysts say Ms. Beasley has been the more active of the two candidates in hitting the airwaves and making the rounds on the campaign trail. Mr. Budd could be lying low by design, given the conventional wisdom that the party of the president will do poorly in midterm elections.
Although the top-line numbers show a close race, internal Republican numbers on energized voters show that Mr. Budd and other party candidates have an advantage in the state because of economic concerns, said Paul Shumaker, a longtime North Carolina political consultant for Mr. Burr and the state’s other Republican senator, Thom Tillis.
“Democrats have a turnout problem, which is why they are trying to build a narrative that things are not as bad as voters feel they are at this point in time,” Mr. Shumaker said. “The political environment in North Carolina is stronger for Republicans right now than in 2014, when everyone believed Kay Hagan would win.”
Mr. Tillis defeated Ms. Hagan during that cycle by about 45,000 votes, denying the Democrat a second term.
The current race is similar to others across the country. Inflation, abortion and opinions about Mr. Biden and Mr. Trump are fueling voters’ attitudes, which often break along geographic lines.
“There’s not much unique left in American electoral politics. Politics is nationalized from dog catcher on up, and that nationalization is clear in this U.S. Senate race,” Mr. Cooper said. “The urban areas will vote with Beasley and the rural areas with Budd. The suburban and exurban areas, then, remain as the sole battlegrounds for control of the U.S. Senate.”
Ms. Beasley is a former public defender who became a judge. She was appointed by the Democratic governor as North Carolina’s chief justice in 2019 but lost a bid for a full term in 2020. She is parlaying that legal experience into a campaign pitch that says she will be a fair and independent senator and knows how to “keep students in classrooms and out of the courtroom.”
The Beasley campaign seized on a proposal by Sen. Lindsey Graham, South Carolina Republican, that would prohibit abortion nationwide after 15 weeks of pregnancy. Her campaign said it proves that Republicans are intent on a nationwide abortion ban despite claiming the issue is up to the states.
The campaign also said Mr. Budd hasn’t supported measures to ease economic pain, such as allowing Medicare to negotiate down drug prices.
“Cheri’s unmatched momentum and North Carolina-focused campaign is why she’s well positioned to win in November. Meanwhile, Congressman Budd is struggling to stay afloat with his disgraceful record of fighting to strip away Americans’ constitutional freedoms and opposing efforts to lower costs,” Beasley campaign spokeswoman Kelci Hobson said.
Mr. Budd describes himself as a “conservative fighter, small-business owner and family man.” He says his experience running a shooting sports retail store, training center and shooting range means he knows what it takes to meet payroll and run a business.
Mr. Budd voted not to certify the 2020 presidential results but has said Mr. Biden is the legitimate president.
A Trump endorsement helped Mr. Budd in the primary, but that was before the raid of the former president’s Florida estate and his mounting legal woes.
Mr. Budd is not shying away from the former president. Mr. Trump is planning to hold a rally in Wilmington, North Carolina, on Sept. 23, and Mr. Budd is banking on it to fire up supporters. Mr. Budd is contrasting the joint appearance with Ms. Beasley’s “scheduling conflicts” whenever a Biden administration figure is in the state.
“President Trump carried North Carolina twice, and Amy Kate and I are thrilled he’s heading back to our great state to get folks fired up as our campaign accelerates into the final stretch,” Mr. Budd said Wednesday, referring to his wife. “And, in the spirit of bipartisanship, we would also welcome Joe Biden to come campaign early and often for Cheri Beasley and personally and publicly thank her for supporting his disastrous economic policies.”
Mr. Budd is leaning heavily into the economic debate. He says Ms. Beasley would be a “rubber stamp” for Mr. Biden’s agenda and cause prices for rent, groceries and other items to rise further.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee suggested that Ms. Beasley led a court that was soft on crime and said Democrats will be disappointed, once again, on election night in North Carolina.
“Ted Budd will have a big win in the North Carolina Senate race because he is running against a candidate in Cheri Beasley, whose judicial and legal records are abysmal and who hasn’t met a Joe Biden policy she didn’t love,” NRSC spokesman T.W. Arrighi said. “Democrats have long talked about turning the Carolinas blue, but just as they’ve learned in past cycles, talk is cheap.”