Dems agonize over N.C. spending debacle as Senate race tightens
Senate Democrats are prioritizing a half-dozen states over North Carolina. The state’s House Democrats are openly fretting that the party could come to regret it.
As the midterms enter their final stretch, Democratic officials are feeling bullish about Cheri Beasley’s odds of winning, noting that recent public polls have the former chief justice for the North Carolina Supreme Court tied or within striking distance of her Republican opponent Rep. Ted Budd. Democratic lawmakers add that she’s outraised him by a substantial margin and see the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe as a motivating factor, especially among suburban women.
But Beasley needs more resources, they say, bringing up a perennial crux for the party: whether to spend their finite war chests in races deemed toss-ups, or to take a chance on those like the one in the Tar Heel State that favor Republicans. Democrats already have a tall order in trying to win Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, states President Joe Biden won in 2020, as well as defend incumbents in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. Party officials are still spending in North Carolina, but not nearly as much.
“I’ve certainly weighed in with the people who control such things, and I think our whole delegation has,” said Rep. David Price (D-N.C.), who has spoken to the Democratic Senate campaign arm about the race. “There’s a real case to be made, and we’re trying to make it … there’s some people who are fully engaged with this, but we all need to be.”
While Beasley’s campaign has far out-spent Budd to a tune of nearly $9 million more in broadcast, digital, radio and cable ads, Republicans overall have spent $43.8 million in ad buys compared to Democrats’ $22.4 million, according to an analysis by AdImpact. However, candidates can pay lower rates per ad than outside groups, allowing Democrats’ dollars to shrink the GOP’s spending advantage.
Former Sen. Doug Jones (D-Ala.), who recently campaigned with Beasley, said Democrats “absolutely” need to invest more in the race, adding that at the moment he’d like to see stronger independent expenditures.
“Democrats give up sometimes too easy and they give up on the South way too easy,” Jones said. “I worry sometimes after my loss, after Jaime [Harrison’s] loss, after Cal Cunningham’s loss, and despite winning in Georgia, that they just sometimes overlook and say, ‘We know we can do better in Ohio and Pennsylvania and other places.’”
North Carolina has eluded Democrats for the past four Senate races. The last Democrat to win a Senate seat there was Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) in 2008, and both POLITICO and the Cook Political Report rate the current North Carolina race as “lean GOP.”
Yet the races are often close. The 2020 race between Sen. Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) and Cal Cunningham was the most expensive Senate race in history, excluding the Georgia Senate runoffs. Democrats spent a total of $136 million on ads for that race, per AdImpact, compared with Republicans’ $109 million. Tillis beat Cunningham by less than 2 percentage points — a month after it was revealed Cunningham had an extramarital affair — in a year when Biden lost the state by 1.3 points to former President Donald Trump and Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper won reelection by 4.5 points.
Democratic lawmakers and campaign officials noted that the Democratic Senate campaign arm’s top priority is defending its incumbents, particularly in the four battleground states. In Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, widely viewed as Democrats’ best pickup opportunities this cycle, the DSCC and a group aligned with Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer called Senate Majority PAC have spent roughly $23 million and $33 million respectively on broadcast and cable ad buys, according to AdImpact. The DSCC has also purchased joint ad buys with the campaigns of Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes and Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman.
FiveThirtyEight currently ranks the North Carolina Senate race as similarly competitive to the Wisconsin Senate race.
The Democratic Senate campaign arm has yet to spend in the state on television ads, but Senate Majority PAC has spent more than $6.5 million so far this cycle on those ads, according to the PAC’s spokesperson. EMILY’s List, a PAC that aims to help elect Democratic women, is spending $2.7 million on the race as well. Schumer also transferred $1 million to Beasley’s Victory Fund Committee, and the DSCC has funded voter registration efforts in the state. And a Democratic campaign aide said that in September there’s been approximate parity with Republicans in terms of ad reach, despite the overall spending differences.
“North Carolina is a Senate battleground,” said Amanda Sherman-Baity, a DSCC spokesperson. “The contrast between Cheri Beasley’s strong campaign and her record of service and justice with Budd’s history of corruption and extremism is making the race highly competitive.” And Kelci Hobson, a spokesperson for Beasley, said her “strong candidacy” has “made North Carolina a top pick-up opportunity.”
Rep. G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.), who spoke to DSCC Chair Gary Peters about the race, said “resources are coming in, we need more without question.” But he noted Senate candidates are competing for a “finite” amount of money.
“They need to be guided by the metrics, that’s what they’re doing,” Butterfield said of the Democratic campaign arm. “Of course, I’d love to see more money coming to North Carolina … donors are having to balance different interests.”
Republicans insist they’re not taking the race for granted either and predicted that, similar to past cycles, it’ll be a nail-biter until the end. Retiring Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who Beasley and Budd are trying to replace, said it’s “always, always close,” while observing that “for the last three cycles, [Democrats] invested a lot and lost.”
Samantha Cotten, a Budd spokesperson, dinged Democrats on that too, saying, “No matter how many millions Dems dump into the race, it won’t overcome that Cheri Beasley is on the wrong side of the key issues driving this election and we’re confident Ted Budd will win on November 8.”
Democrats counter that Cunningham’s unforeseen sex scandal was an anomaly and that Burr’s nearly 6-point win in 2016 was bolstered by Trump, who carried the state in the presidential election. They also note that Beasley, who would be the first Black female senator to represent North Carolina, has already won twice statewide. However, she lost her reelection bid in 2020 for chief justice by 401 votes out of more than 5 million votes cast.
Nationally known Democrats, like Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), are trying to draw more public attention to the race. And Booker, along with House Democratic Caucus Chair Hakeem Jeffries of New York, said he plans to visit the state and campaign for Beasley.
Beasley, who will face Budd in a debate Friday, has attacked his support of a 15-week abortion ban as well as his opposition to certifying the 2020 election. She’s also highlighted that he was the first Senate candidate to receive Trump’s endorsement. The Budd campaign, meanwhile, has sought to paint Beasley as “soft on crime” and linked her to Biden, whose approval rating in the state is at 34 percent, according to a recent poll from High Point University.
“North Carolina presents an opportunity for Democrats to grow their numbers in the United States Senate,” Butterfield said. “North Carolina is not a red state, contrary to what many people believe.”
Sarah Ferris contributed to this report.
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