When it comes to North Carolina’s 2022 general election for the U.S. Senate, it’s too early to tell much. But the March Senate primary vote is starting to loom and the contours of the races are coming into focus.
Campaign finance reports show that the election that could determine control of the U.S. Senate is going to be a costly one.
David McLennan, a Meredith College political science professor and director of the Meredith Poll, notes that the five top candidates – three Republicans and two Democrats – have each reported raising more than $1 million in campaign funds midway through this year. “This is early evidence that this could be the most expensive U.S. Senate race in the history of the state,” he said.
But McLennan noted that dollars collected can be a wobbly guide to enthusiasm raised. “The question remains whether strong fundraising will translate into strong support among primary voters in 2022,” he said.
There are many unknowns ahead regarding the economy and the pandemic, but some aspects of the Senate race are clear. The campaign finance reports show that while 14 Senate candidates reported raising funds, the scramble to succeed retiring Sen. Richard Burr has effectively come down to five candidates. On the Republican side, Rep. Ted Budd, former congressman Mark Walker and former Governor and Charlotte Mayor Pat McCrory. On the Democratic side, it’s former state Supreme Court Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley and state Sen. Jeff Jackson of Mecklenburg County.
Democrat Erica Smith, a former state senator from northeast North Carolina, is making a second bid for her party’s nomination after losing to Cal Cunningham in 2020, but she reported only $55,814 cash on hand and is unlikely to be a factor come March.
Among the top candidates, the second-quarter reports provide hints of the race’s early dynamics. McCrory raised more than Budd in the second quarter. The former governor raised $1.24 million while Budd collected more than $700,000 from outside contributors and loaned his campaign $250,000.
That gap suggests that former President Trump’s endorsement of Budd – and his jab at McCrory as a loser in two statewide races – may not be as helpful, nor as damaging, as some, including me, expected.. Meanwhile, Walker raised $203,000 in the second quarter from mostly small donors and has nearly $1 million on hand. Walker, a Baptist minister and staunch Trump supporter, will continue to impede Budd’s ability to lock up the Trump base.
On the Democratic side, Jackson, after a strong first quarter where he raised nearly $1.3 million, slipped in the second quarter as Beasley entered the race in April. The former chief justice raised $1.27 million to Jackson’s $719,000. Both candidates showed heavy support from small donors, but the question now becomes who will win the big donors.
J. Michael Bitzer, a Catawba College politics professor who studies North Carolina elections, said big donors are on the sidelines for now as they assess which campaigns are the most viable. He added that national Democratic and Republican committees may stay out of these primaries, unlike 2020 when the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee backed Cunningham before the primary vote.
“I haven’t seen anything to say either side is going to start picking a side,” Bitzer said.
Ultimately, Bitzer said, the primaries will be as much about the voters as the candidates, especially on the Republican side. He said, “The biggest question is: Who is the Republican primary voter?”
If die-hard Trump supporters decide the Republican primary, he said, the nominee may not bring out independent, but Republican-leaning voters in the general election.
On the Democratic side, turnout will also be crucial. Jackson has a social media presence and populist style that could drive up turnout and Beasley, with a chance to become North Carolina’s first Black senator, could boost turnout among Black and women voters.
Associate opinion editor Ned Barnett can be reached at 919-829-4512, nbarnett@ newsobserver.com
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