Anyone who has lived in our state or spent even a brief amount of time following our politics shouldn’t be surprised that this year’s race for the U.S. Senate in North Carolina is expected to be fiercely contested and expensive. U.S. Representative Ted Budd, the Republican nominee, and former Chief Justice Cheri Beasley, the Democratic nominee, are deadlocked with 42% each in the most recent Civitas Poll from the John Locke Foundation. Other surveys indicate statistically negligible leads for either candidate.
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 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% 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 might 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 N.C. Supreme Court, and many other offices is clearly not a place where Republicans can take electoral success for granted.
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