Raleigh, N.C. — State Sen. Jeff Jackson’s decision to drop out of the race for the U.S. Senate provides Democrats clarity on how to best vie for the soon-to-be-vacant seat as the party tries to keep control of Congress.
Jackson, D-Mecklenburg, on Thursday endorsed Cheri Beasley in the Democratic primary. He and Beasley, former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, were considered the top Democratic candidates in the 2022 race to replace retiring Republican U.S. Sen. Richard Burr.
Jackson recently said he believed his campaign had more vigor than Beasley’s. In a WUNC-FM podcast posted Dec. 7, he noted that his campaign had held a town hall in each of North Carolina’s 100 counties over 100 days.
“There’s an energy with this campaign that just doesn’t exist with any other Senate campaign in the state, Republican or Democrat,” Jackson said.
However, Beasley had raised more money than Jackson and fared better in the polls. Jackson acknowledged in a video Thursday that he’d have to attack Beasley to make the race competitive – something he said he had no desire to do.
“She’s wonderful,” Jackson said in the video. “A costly and divisive primary will sink this whole thing. We need to unite right now, and we need to unite behind Cheri.”
Boost for Beasley
The move means Beasley, who is the first Black woman to serve as chief justice in North Carolina, is likely to be the state’s first Black woman nominee for U.S. Senate.
The state Supreme Court this month ordered the March primaries delayed until May 17 to accommodate legal challenges related to new congressional and legislative district maps.
Some political observers have speculated that Jackson could have used that extra time to catch up to Beasley in the polls. Michael Bitzer, chair of political science at Catawba College in Salisbury, has his doubts.
“Based on the trajectory that both candidates seemed to be heading, I don’t think we can say that the extra two months would have been any benefit to Jackson,” Bitzer said. “I think the dynamic of a historic candidacy, and the importance of African American women in the Democratic coalition, just posed a formidable path to overcome.”
Jackson is still trying to figure out what to do with his remaining war chest, which totaled about $1.1 million in September, spokesman Dylan Arant told WRAL News. The campaign can keep the money, donate it to other campaigns or PACs or use it on costs related to ending a campaign, such as moving out of a campaign office or paying staff.
Candidates for federal office can also keep the money in their account and reuse it on another run for federal or state office, said Anna Massoglia, an editor and researcher for the Center for Responsive Politics. However, she said, if Jackson were to use the funds to run for a state-level office, such as state attorney general, he would not be able to transfer them back to another federal campaign committee.
Midterm elections are historically difficult for the political party that has just won the White House. On top of that, gas prices are up, and President Joe Biden’s favorability numbers aren’t great, hanging a fog over the U.S. Senate playing field.
Jackson’s decision makes things a little easier for the Democratic Party, especially as Republicans fight among themselves for their party’s nomination.
Although a Republican is expected to win the seat, North Carolina’s GOP Senate primary so far has been a squabble between former Gov. Pat McCrory, 13th District Congressman Ted Budd and former Congressman Mark Walker.
“A lot of things are against the Democrats in 2022 so far. But this development of Beasley having an open lane, while the Republicans feud all the way to May, is a good development for Democrats,” said Mac McCorkle, a longtime Democratic strategist who teaches public policy at Duke University.
Democratic incumbents are playing defense in Arizona, Georgia, Nevada and New Hampshire. Their best chances for flipping seats in the Senate are in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and North Carolina, said J. Miles Coleman, associate editor of Sabato’s Crystal Ball at the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics.
North Carolina could be the first 2022 primary in which Democrats unite around a front-runner. Primaries in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are expected to feature more head-to-head battles.
“Beasley can use this opportunity to fundraise – and stockpile resources – while Republicans fight in their primary,” Coleman said. “Jackson, though he’s exiting the race, was generally a strong fundraiser, so it’s possible that many of his donors would switch to Beasley.”
In the meantime, Republicans can bring a new level of focus to their messaging in the U.S. Senate race.
A singular target
Republicans would prefer it if big-name Democratic candidates spent millions of dollars to drag each other’s reputations through the mud, said Charles Hellwig, a GOP campaign consultant currently working for Walker.
“I don’t think [Jackson dropping out] is better than having them fight,” Hellwig said. “But I do think it gives everybody on our side a chance to go after her record, her opinions and her beliefs very specifically as opposed to generically against national Democrat policies.”
Hellwig suggested that McCrory may benefit the most from having a new target. He’s ahead in the polls and may not want to draw too much attention to his Republican primary opponents.
“You’re going to see McCrory, who’s trying to play the front-runner, probably start focusing more on Beasley,” Hellwig said.
He predicted that Budd and political action committees such as Club for Growth will escalate attacks on McCrory.
Michael Whatley, chairman of the North Carolina Republican Party, said he doesn’t believe the clear runway will lead Beasley to victory in November.
“Her full embrace of those progressive positions are out of step with North Carolina voters, and I think that will give us an advantage next fall,” Whatley said.
And he’s not convinced that competitive primaries are harmful, noting the winner emerges better equipped and ready for the general election.
“Any candidate that comes out of a primary like that is going to have grassroots support,” he said. “They’re going to have a lot of press that’s going to come around with it.”
“They’re sharp,” he added. “They’re battle-tested. They had issues that have been raised and that they’ve addressed.”