Democrats divided between former chief justice, state senator as best U.S. Senate choice

Former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley and state Sen. Jeff Jackson are featured in this combination photo. File

RALEIGH — The Democratic primary for North Carolina’s 2022 U.S. Senate race is shaping up as a battle with two camps: those who believe Cheri Beasley, the first black female Supreme Court justice, would be best equipped to take on the Republican nominee; and those who believe the progressive energy behind state Sen. Jeff Jackson will drive turnout in what is expected to be another Senate race that shatters spending records.

Jackson is promising to run a “100-county” campaign, holding town-hall events across the state and documenting the journey via Twitter. The social-media focus indicates a strategy to capture national attention the way Beto O’Rourke did in Texas in 2018.

In one thread, Jackson posts about a father and son playing on the playground who came and listened to the town hall, a school counselor in Richmond County, and a local food bank volunteer in Moore County concerned about climate change.

Most recently, Jackson completed town-hall events in Forsyth, Rockingham, and Stokes counties.

On June 10, Jackson came out in support of ending the prohibition of marijuana.

“What’s about to become a cash crop in Virginia can still get you prison time in North Carolina. It’s time to end the prohibition of marijuana,” he recently said in a video accompanied by a campaign petition.

After raising over $1 million in his first week as a candidate, though, Jackson appears to be struggling to break through, dogged by his many similarities to 2020 nominee Cal Cunningham.

The N.C. Republican Party refers to Jackson as “Cal Cunningham Jr.” in press releases, and even some Democrats have publicly said many in the party are weary of another white male candidate for Senate.

Beasley entered the race in April and instantly delivered a show of force with endorsements from elected officials across the state, including many of Jackson’s current General Assembly colleagues.

She unveiled the endorsements from five current state senators, including Mecklenburg County’s Joyce Waddell, in addition to state Reps. Kelly Alexander, Carla Cunningham and Nasif Majeed.

Additional endorsements include former NC Supreme Court Chief Justice Henry Frye, former Durham Mayor Bill Bell, former N.C. Democratic Party chair Patsy Keever, and EMILY’s List.

“As the first black woman to win a statewide election in North Carolina in 2008, and the first black woman to serve as chief justice of the N.C. Supreme Court, Cheri has blazed trails and shattered glass ceilings throughout her entire career. It is only fitting that she is now running to be North Carolina’s first black woman senator. We look forward to supporting her as she flips this seat from red to blue and expands the Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate,” a statement from the organization said.

Beasley has not to this point maintained the public schedule of Jackson. Most recently, she held two campaign stops in Charlotte and Greensboro, and is focused on day-to-day comments on news, such as four consecutive days of tweets about former President Donald Trump’s speech at the NCGOP convention on June 5.

A Cardinal Point Analytics poll of the race on April 20 showed Beasley, who hadn’t officially entered the race at that point, with six-point lead over Jackson, 32% to 26%.

Perhaps just as important for Beasley and Jackson are the names who did not join the race.

Gov. Roy Cooper and Attorney General Josh Stein, who both won their races in 2020, declined to run for the seat. It is widely believed that Stein is eyeing a run for governor in 2024, following the path of Cooper and former Gov. Mike Easley.

Cooper said he decided not to run, because he would leave the governor’s mansion in the hands of Republican Lt. Gov. Mark Robinson.

Three other Democrats are trying to break through in the race, although they lack the funding and support of the top two candidates.

They include former state Sen. Erica Smith, the runner up in the 2020 primary in large part due to national Democrats’ recruitment and support of Cunningham; Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton; and virologist Richard Watkins.

Throughout the spring, rumors linked former NASA astronaut Joan Higginbotham to a potential campaign. Higginbotham, a Charlotte resident, was thought to be seriously considering a run. A board member of the Economic Development Partnership of North Carolina (EDPNC) and wife of longtime Charlotte city councilman James “Smuggie” Mitchell Jr., her candidacy would be a wildcard, as she shares a home base with Jackson and would be the third black female in the race.