CNN  — 

Ted Cruz and Dave Matthews headlined campaign rallies within a short drive of each other in Raleigh, North Carolina, last week.

Matthews peppered his hour-long set at a get-out-the-vote concert for Democratic Senate nominee Cheri Beasley with aphorisms like, “Sometimes when I look at the way things are right now, it’s the difference between decent people and bananas.”

A few hours earlier, Cruz had revved up a much smaller crowd for Republican hopeful Ted Budd, shouting that freedom and America were worth defending.

The tunes were different but the refrains from the Republican senator from Texas and the left-leaning rock star were the same: This year’s North Carolina Senate race could end up being critical to deciding the balance of power in Washington for the next two years.

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  • And it may offer early indicators for the 2024 presidential race. For Republicans, the contest in a state that delivered Donald Trump his smallest margin of victory in 2020 could reveal the extent to which Trumpism – which has moved beyond Trump himself – has taken hold in the state. For Democrats anxious about Florida and Ohio shifting red, and about other close states coming under control of officials who may stand in the way of certifying election wins, the result could be an early sign of whether North Carolina – and its now 16 electoral votes – helps give them a viable path through the Electoral College.

    “The eyes of the nation are watching us in North Carolina because we are a microcosm of the nation,” said Democratic Rep. G.K. Butterfield, who’s retiring after 18 years. “I certainly hope that voters have enough sense to not elect a long cadre of Republican candidates. If they do so, it’s going to empower and embolden Donald Trump and his allies and give them a false sense of being able to win in 2024.”

    Over the past 10 years, more North Carolinians have registered as “unaffiliated” than as Democrats and Republicans, and state voters have grown accustomed to elections decided by “razor thin” margins. But Democrats have spent the past few months side-eyeing Beasley, a former state Supreme Court chief justice, as their sleeper insurance policy for holding the evenly divided Senate.

    They’re not the only ones.

    “We will not win the majority if Ted Budd does not win here in North Carolina, I promise you that,” Republican Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas said last week while campaigning for Budd in a fairgrounds building in the small town of Salisbury.

    This state, with its cross-section of geographies and populations, has functioned as a practical laboratory for national politics over the past 20 years, teasing Democrats with the possibility that they’re so close to winning statewide federal races but then reassuring Republicans nearly every time with the wins they rack up.

    Beasley and Budd and their campaigns keep urging supporters to find 10, or maybe even 12, friends and neighbors to vote, telling them it really could come down to that. A Marist poll last week showed the race tied among registered voters but with Budd having a slight edge among those who “definitely” plan to vote. And after months of quiet multimillion-dollar dumps from outside groups and super PACs, millions more are pouring in for the final week of outreach.

    Budd’s low-key Trumpism

    Budd speaks at rally in Jacksonville, North Carolina, on October 14, 2022.

    Budd was the first Senate nonincumbent to receive Trump’s endorsement this cycle, and he’s had a full Trump embrace since then, thanks to his own full embrace of the former President. But his connection is more centered on the hard-right politics that Trump tapped into than the former president’s brash style or rhetoric.

    While Budd hasn’t been keeping his distance from Trump’s orbit – Donald Trump Jr. stumped with him last month – he has been keeping a lower profile, limiting himself to one public event per day and rarely showing up on Fox News like many other Republican Senate nominees looking for national attention.

    A win for Budd would be a further turn to the right for North Carolina: He has a lifetime of 98% on the Heritage Action scorecard, which measures how conservative members of Congress are. (The hard-right group has put money into the race on his behalf.) In comparison, the state’s two Republican senators, retiring Sen. Richard Burr and Sen. Thom Tillis, hold scores of 61% and 64% respectively. Budd voted against certifying the 2020 election in the hours after the pro-Trump mob was cleared from the US Capitol last year. More recently, he was quick to embrace South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s proposal for a national ban on most abortions after 15 weeks, co-sponsoring the companion House version. He has also voted against raising the debt ceiling.

    On the campaign trail, Budd keeps a sunny air while sticking to talking points.

    “When I look at inflation, when I look at crime, when I look at parents wanting a say in their kids’ education – everything that the Democrats have done and that Cheri Beasley would do makes life worse for the people of North Carolina, and everything I’m going to do will make life better,” Budd said in an interview after the campaign stop in Salisbury last week, outfitted in a navy puffer vest and dark gray sneakers.

    A few minutes earlier, Budd had the crowd nodding eagerly along as he accused President Joe Biden of telling the world “that the aggressors can be aggressors,” quoted Milton Friedman on inflation and promised to “put the brakes” on the president’s agenda.

    On the air, Budd’s campaign and allies have aggressively gone after Beasley, accusing her of turning dangerous criminals loose while on the bench, including saying that she “struck down” a law to require GPS tracking for sex offenders. (Beasley and other judges call that charge “deceitful” since the ruling was to limit the scope of the law and not strike it down.)

    Democrats like Butterfield, the retiring congressman, don’t even wait to be asked about the attacks to insist they’re unfair – but admit they’re having an impact.

    Democrats between hope and heartbreak

    Beasley campaigns in Smithfield, North Carolina, on October 19, 2022.

    Barack Obama’s 2008 win in North Carolina energized Democrats, and they’ve been chasing that high ever since.

    Obama’s reelection strategists picked Charlotte for the Democratic convention in 2012, but by the time the president arrived to give his nomination acceptance speech, they knew the state wouldn’t be winnable that November.

    Two years later, Democrat Kay Hagan, who had run ahead of Obama in 2008 while defeating Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole, was unseated in the 2014 red wave.

    Hillary Clinton flew in for a raucous midnight rally with Jon Bon Jovi and Lady Gaga as the clock ticked over to Election Day in 2016 – and the state ended up being called relatively early for Trump.

    The extramarital texts of Democratic Senate nominee Cal Cunningham may have cost Democrats a seat they believed would be theirs in 2020, and probably sank Biden’s chances there too.

    This has left some North Carolina Democrats feeling like they should start assuming a loss now to better manage any heartbreak this time and to accept that they haven’t been able to keep up with Republicans and Trump.

    Democratic Gov. Roy Cooper – who ran ahead of both Hillary Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020 while winning his two terms – passed on running for Senate himself this year, despite being courted once again by national Democrats. High on his list of reasons to say no: concern about what would happen if he won and was succeeded by the state’s hard-right Republican lieutenant governor, who is separately elected.

    That left Beasley, who lost her bid for a full term as state Supreme Court chief justice in 2020 by 401 votes, as the rare prominent Democrat left in the state to run. She was also seen as well positioned to withstand the current political environment: She could stand on her record as a judge to rebut attacks that she was soft on crime and could also hold herself up as a Washington outsider without ties to Biden.

    In her efforts to end Senate Democrats’ losing streak in North Carolina, Beasley has been chasing votes beyond the burgeoning party strongholds in Charlotte and the Research Triangle of Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill – including the hundreds of mostly middle-aged White voters she had cheering for her at the Dave Matthews concert. She’s been dipping into Trump counties, looking to find the disconnected Democrats that she hopes she can still get enthused again.

    At an event last week at a senior center in Apex in the Raleigh area, Beasley talked mostly about lowering prices and cast Budd as being in the pocket of corporations for not voting to cut prescription drug and insulin prices. (Budd voted against Democrats’ sweeping health care, tax and climate package known as the Inflation Reduction Act, which aims to lower drug prices and caps insulin costs for Medicare enrollees.)

    In an interview after leading the people in the room across a path to an early voting site, Beasley, wearing a “Protect Roe” necklace against her purple dress, deflected a question about Budd and Cruz mocking her for not appearing with Biden. She deflected another question about what the tightness of the race reflected about the North Carolina she knew and the continued resonance of Trump.

    Her experience as a judge comes across in her measured manner and in the way she bristles at attacks by falling back on well-balanced, well-rehearsed lines.

    Earlier in the summer, Democrats nationally had been citing Beasley as a model for others, pointing out how early and aggressively she’d worked to define herself and firmly distance herself from calls to “defund the police” and other positions popular among the most progressive in her party.

    Beasley, in her interview, tacitly acknowledged her frustration with the attacks on her record on the bench that she believes have tried to sensationalize sometimes complex rulings. Budd, she said, was “far more interested in fear-mongering and scaring folks rather than actually providing solutions for folks here in North Carolina.”

    “Folks do have a clear choice, and they need to know – clearly – what that is,” she said.