RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) — The first Black woman to serve as chief justice on the North Carolina Supreme Court announced her entry Tuesday into the state’s highly competitive U.S. Senate race.
Cheri Beasley formally declared her bid for the Democratic nomination after months of deliberation. She joins four other Democrats who have already begun campaigning to fill the seat being vacated by Republican Sen. Richard Burr.
“I’m running to fight for the people of North Carolina,” Beasley said in an interview. “I have run successfully twice, and people know me differently. I do have a very different record. I’ve been a judge for more than 20 years, and I’ve led a branch of government.”
The winner of the Democratic primary early next year will advance to a general election fight in November 2022 that could determine control of the Senate, now split 50-50 with Vice President Kamala Harris breaking ties in the Democrats’ favor.
Former GOP U.S. Rep. Mark Walker and former Gov. Pat McCrory are competing on the Republican side.
Just two Black women have served in the U.S. Senate, and with Harris’s departure to become President Joe Biden’s vice president, there are currently no Black women senators. Beasley is looking to change that.
Beasley enters the race with strong name recognition as a former judge with a track record of raising lots of campaign money. She is the only declared candidate who has been elected to statewide office, which she accomplished twice: once in 2008 for an appellate court seat and again in 2014 for an associate justice position on the state Supreme Court.
Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper named her the high court’s chief justice in 2019. But then she narrowly lost election to a full term as chief justice in 2020, falling short by just 401 votes out of nearly 5.4 million ballots cast as she was defeated by Associate Justice Paul Newby.
Despite her past electoral successes, Beasley faces a formidable opponent in Democratic state Sen. Jeff Jackson, a white progressive candidate who raised nearly $1.3 million between the time he entered the race in late January and the end of March. Jackson has a much wider social media following, can generate attention through his work in state government and has been campaigning on a tour of all 100 counties.
But Michael Bitzer, a political scientist at Catawba College in North Carolina who tracks state elections, believes Beasley is in a better position to win the Democratic primary than Jackson, despite the state senator’s three-month head start.
“Jackson certainly has social media awareness, but running a statewide campaign is very different,” Bitzer said. “When you’re talking about the base of the Democratic primary who will be the electorate in the primary, I’d have to give a slight edge to Beasley just because she has that recognition amongst the grassroots folks, particularly among the African American coalition.”
The Collective PAC, a large political action committee promoting Black political engagement, has already come out in support of Beasley.
Jackson’s campaign declined to comment on Beasley’s decision to run.
Beasley did not commit to campaigning in all 100 counties amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but said she plans to traverse the state and hold a number of in-person events. She supports a $15 federal minimum wage and tax increases on wealthy North Carolinians, but declined to say where she identifies on a political spectrum, saying that it’s the “pundits in Washington who think about those kind of categorizations.”
Asked twice what her most ambitious policy idea is to support North Carolinians, she broadly highlighted issues of health care, education and economic prosperity that she’s making central to her campaign. “Health care is a start. But, you know, as a senator, I can’t be monolithic, either, right? I’ve got to really be thoughtful about the things that people care about.”
The former chief justice also expressed an openness to expanding the size of the U.S. Supreme Court from its current makeup of nine justices. But she noted she wants to see what recommendations emerge from a commission Biden formed to study the issue before she makes a determination.
“Over the course of history, the Supreme Court has expanded,” Beasley said. “It’s important for us all to be thoughtful about this to make an informed decision. I think the commission will bring us information and do the research, and I think we should all wait for that to happen.”
Former state Sen. Erica Smith, who unsuccessfully sought the 2020 Democratic Senate nomination, said in a statement that Beasley’s entry means there are now “two viable and qualified Black women running for U.S. Senate at the same time.”
But Bitzer said the primary is essentially a two-person race now, with Beasley’s announcement effectively ending Smith’s chances.
Virologist Richard Watkins and Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton are also seeking the Democratic nod.
“The three other candidates are likely to stay in the race, but the conventional wisdom and the sense on the ground is that it’s now Beasley versus Jackson,” Bitzer said. “With Beasley’s entrance to the race, all eyes will be on her and how Jackson will respond.”
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Anderson is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.