You have to go back to 2004 to find the last truly open race for the US Senate in North Carolina.
Our policy was a little different back then.
Democrat Erskine Bowles and Republican Richard Burr sat so squarely at the center of their respective parties that they sailed to primary victories without significant opposition.
One wonders if Bowles, with his tough stance against deficit spending, or Burr, with his vote to impeach President Trump, would get a second glance today from supporters of their parties.
In 2021, the Republican and Democratic national bases are not only more conservative and more liberal. They are at war with themselves, undergoing massive realignments sparked by populist uprisings on both sides.
North Carolina is a perfect microcosm of these tensions – every Democratic and GOP faction has a foothold in Tar Heel state. So, while November will have all the glory, national observers should agree next March: our primaries in the US Senate could say a lot about the direction that its political parties will take in the next presidential race and beyond.
Consider the GOP race, the first major primary after Trump’s presidency:
Firmly in establishment, Republican Country Club Lane straddles former Gov. Pat McCrory. The announcement of McCrory, a so-called “Eisenhower Republican,” avoided all of the issues energizing grassroots GOP voters – not a single mention of God, gun rights, abortion, electoral security or, more specifically, President Trump.
As another commentator noted last week, with a near universal identity and an ever rosy image among Republicans, McCrory would have been a lock several elections ago, like Burr in 2004. But in the age of Trump populism and insurgent conservatives, McCrory’s campaign is a big test for the old establishment.
Another question the Republican primary might answer: Where do evangelical voters fit in today’s GOP? Are they now part of the Trump base, or are they still a separate political movement? Evangelicals in North Carolina have historically created high electoral floors for candidates such as Mark Harris and Mike Huckabee. Former Congressman and Minister Mark Walker is taking that route (Huckabee endorsed it), though he’s also trying to pick up establishment voters.
And then there is the pure Trump base, the voters who have been spurred on by the Tea Party movement and want a political warrior, not a political philosopher – someone who will confront the coastal elites, the establishment institutions and overturn the culture. In other words: a second coming from Jesse Helms. Rising GOP star and Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson’s decision not to run left an opening for last week’s announcement by Congressman Ted Budd. Hugging Trump, Budd pledged to “crush the liberal agenda” during a campaign launch aimed directly at MAGA voters.
The democratic field has its own paths which reflect the evolution of the politics of the national democrats:
Former Senator Erica Smith is a supporter of Bernie Sanders who is leading a Stacey Abrams grievance campaign. But unlike Abrams, and much like Sanders, Smith has a good faith grievance: Chuck Schumer undermined his candidacy for the party’s nomination in 2020.
The Poles in Washington seem to regard Senator Jeff Jackson as another Cal Cunningham: a traditional white lawyer and veteran. But Jackson is more to the left than Cunningham, with the voting record to prove it. He’s more like a Beto O’Rourke, fundraising for national activists and wooing affluent urban liberals and college town progressives.
In reality, North Carolina’s first African-American chief justice, Cheri Beasley, is more of an establishment candidate, and arguably the most formidable Democratic candidate in the general election. Beasley faces an ideological challenge similar to McCrory’s: Is there enough room in his party for an old school candidate? Can she take the path of “progressive business” launched by former governor Jim Hunt – followed by Mike Easley and, to a lesser extent, Roy Cooper before 2016 – and win a hotly contested primary?
Either way, pay attention early. The November election could tell us which party controls the US Senate. But the March primary will tell us more about the direction both sides will take over the next decade.
Contributing columnist Ray Martin is a former press secretary to Republican Senator Phil Berger and managed the Republican Senate Caucus political operation from 2012 to 2018. He is a partner at The Differentiators, a Raleigh-based consulting firm.