In North Carolina Senate Race, Global Warming Is On The Back Burner. Do Voters Even Care?

With purple North Carolina poised to play a leading role in next month’s midterm elections, the state grapples with dangerous “forever chemicals” in drinking water, a large legacy of toxic coal ash from coal-fired power plants, polluting hog farms and their waste, destruction of forests and an array of vulnerabilities related to climate change. 

Nevertheless, polling on the race for North Carolina’s open U.S. Senate seat shows that climate change and environmental protection are not top-tier issues in the state. Neither Democratic candidate Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court and the first Black woman to serve in that role, nor Republican U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, a Trump-endorsed gun store owner, says much about them.

But their websites, voting records or occasional comments show the two candidates have staked out sharply different positions on climate and the environment, giving environmental voters a clear choice.

Budd, elected in 2016 to the House of Representatives in an “L” shaped district in the central and northern part of the state, has among the worst records in Congress on the League of Conservation Voters scorecard—zero in 2021, and a 3 percent lifetime rating. More recently, he opposed the Democrats’ Inflation Reduction Act, which included an unprecedented $370 billion in federal spending to tackle climate change, much of it through tax credits for developers and producers of clean electricity. Democrats, he said in August, want to “double down on the policies that got us in this mess.”

Beasley, who has promised to address what she calls “the climate crisis” on campaign stops, tweeted her support of the Inflation Reduction Act when it passed, and criticized the state’s two senators who had voted against it: “North Carolinians deserve more. As Senator, I will always fight for the people—not cower to corporate special interests.”

She has no legislative voting record, but that does not concern the League of Conservation Voters Action Fund, which has endorsed her.

“There are a lot of environmental issues in North Carolina and she is committed to address them,” said Craig Auster, vice president of political affairs for the League of Conservation Voters.

Because of the 2020 election of Democrat Joe Biden as president and a 50-50 Senate controlled by Democrats, “we passed the biggest environmental justice and climate investments ever, with the Inflation Reduction Act,” Auster said. “What’s at stake is continued progress on climate and the ability of the administration to put forward strong climate rules without a hostile Senate trying to undermine them.”

If elected, Beasley would be the first Black senator to represent North Carolina.

Disciplined Campaigns 

Republicans and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky are desperately trying to hold onto this North Carolina Senate seat and retake control of the Senate, where Democrats have achieved considerable success by enacting major infrastructure and climate legislation. Nationally, the North Carolina race has been something of a sleeper, drawing far less attention than similarly close races in Georgia, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Ohio. 

Beasley and Budd have run disciplined campaigns to replace incumbent three-term U.S. Sen. Richard Burr, a Republican who is retiring from office.

In 2020, North Carolina reelected a Democratic governor, narrowly reelected a Republican senator, Thom Tillis, and went for former President Donald Trump by a slim margin,

That same year, Beasley lost a race to retain her seat on the state’s highest court by 401 votes, following a long career as a district, appellate and supreme court judge. In recent weeks she has quietly narrowed Budd’s earlier 5 percentage point lead in the polls to 2 percent, according to tracking by FiveThirtyEight.  The Cook Political Report scores the race as “leans Republican.”

If she wins, she’d claim what has been an elusive prize for Democrats, who have not represented North Carolina in the U.S. Senate since former Sen. Kay Hagan was defeated by Tillis after one term, in 2014.

Both candidates are running what North Carolina State University political science professor Steven Greene describes as “generic” campaigns, sticking to their party’s talking points.

“She is really playing up abortion, which any Democrat is going to do in this environment,” Greene said. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court remade the nation’s political landscape when it struck down Roe v. Wade’s abortion-rights precedent, especially animating Democratic Party candidates like Beasley who want Congress to pass legislation to codify abortion rights.

“Ted Budd is saying inflation is going to ruin your life, which any Republican is going to do,” Greene said. He’s also repeatedly trying to paint Beasley as a “rubber stamp” for President Joe Biden, who, in a Sept. 1 High Point University poll in the state, had a job approval rating of 32 percent.

In North Carolina, repeated hurricanes led Gov. Cooper to advance a statewide climate action strategy four years ago. But Greene and other observers said the memory of major hurricanes slamming North Carolina among voters appears to be fading. It’s been six years since the wind and waters of Hurricane Matthew devastated large swaths of North Carolina, followed two years later by Hurricane Florence. 

“We just don’t have a good enough feel for how these things matter,” Greene said. “In the end, the sad truth is that it’s not that much. People should care, but they don’t.”

But had Democrats in Congress failed to pass significant climate legislation, that might have lessened enthusiasm among some of their voters, especially young ones, he said.

Polling Shows a Jump in Support of Fossil Fuels

Budd was a relatively unknown congressman who defeated a crowded Republican primary field, with the help of Trump’s endorsement, that included former two-term Gov. Pat McCrory. Trump, whose administration was a boon for oil companies and a climate threat to the planet, continues to embrace Budd, and Budd continues to stand by Trump, despite Trump’s legal and political battles over his efforts to overturn the election and his handling of top secret government documents after he left office.

Budd’s campaign website doesn’t mention climate change among nine issues he highlights. His congressional website touts his support for fossil fuel pipelines, oil and gas drilling, and cheaper gas. He also joined a legal brief in supporting the petitioners who have brought a lawsuit, Sackett v. Environmental Protection Agency, before the Supreme Court arguing that the federal government’s protection of wetlands is too broad.

A lack of a policy to address climate change should not be a liability in this election for Budd, said Paul Shumaker, a top Republican consultant in the state who is not working for the Budd campaign.

“The only voters driven by climate change are voters already in the democratic camp,” Shumaker said. Shumaker said his polling reveals a jump in support for fossil fuels among North Carolina voters this year, probably due to high gas prices.

“The Republican message now is simple—the economic sky is falling now with Joe Biden’s bad economic policies,” Shumaker said. “Budd needs to keep the focus on Joe Biden’s failed economy and understand that North Carolinians are driven more by economic issues and less on social issues.”

By contrast, Beasley’s campaign website has a section on climate and the environment. 

“Cheri believes that tackling the climate crisis is imperative to our health, economy, and security, and the consequences of inaction are already hurting the people of our state,” the website says. “Longer and more damaging hurricane seasons and extreme weather events shut down roads, cause utility prices to skyrocket, damage our military bases and grind local businesses to a halt.”

Further, Beasley believes “we must take action to address systemic disproportionate impacts of climate change and pollution on vulnerable communities in North Carolina.”

Inside Climate News contacted both candidates’ campaign offices and neither responded.

Different Takes on Extremism 

The two candidates’ campaigns are, to some degree, in the shadow of each of their party’s leaders.

Last month, Budd appeared at a Trump rally in North Carolina, where Trump accused Beasley, without any evidence, of being “a Marxist radical.”

In an Oct. 7 debate between Beasley and Budd, Beasley called Trump’s characterization of her “defying.”

“The reality is, Congressman Budd has aligned himself with somebody who is truly extremist,” Beasley said. “That is a reflection on him.”

Budd said he earned Trump’s endorsement “because I am an America-first candidate.” 

While Budd has embraced Trump, Beasley has kept her distance from Biden, avoiding a visit to the state by Vice President Kamala Harris on Sept. 1 and, during the debate, delicately side-stepping questions about whether Biden should run for reelection or whether she’d join him on a hypothetical visit to North Carolina.  

Budd repeatedly claimed that she would be a “rubber stamp” for Biden. But Beasley pushed back. “It’s wrong to align me with anybody unless I specifically say what my positions are, and I am glad to talk about my positions because my positions really do support people here in North Carolina,” she countered.

All About Turnout

Both candidates are “beating the roads, up and down the state,” campaigning hard, said Dan Crawford, director of government relations for the North Carolina League of Conservation Voters, which does not make endorsements in federal races. Beasley has traveled the whole state, getting out beyond the party’s strongholds in the state’s urban centers, including Charlotte and cities like Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill in the Research Triangle, he said.

For Democrats, “there is always an attempt to run up the score in urban areas, but if you look at how other Democrats have won statewide, it’s by reducing the losses in the rural areas,” he said.

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“Many people had this as a tilt-Republicans race. But now it’s more of a toss-up. The winner will be whoever is successful at getting the vote out.”

Through the end of September, Beasely had out-raised Budd $29 million to $11 million, but national Republican groups have outspent their Democratic counterparts in the race, according to the latest reports on file with the Federal Election Commission and the Open Secrets website.

Beasley has had as much as $33 million spent against her by political action committees, including $24 million from the McConnell-aligned Senate Leadership Fund, according to Open Secrets.

The Associated Press reported on Oct. 11 that the Senate Majority PAC, which is aligned with Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y.,  was planning to spend more than $4 million for an ad campaign over the next two weeks in support of Beasley, and that her campaign announced separately it had raised an additional $13.3 million during the three months ending Sept. 30.

Even if the candidates are mostly focused on reproductive rights or inflation, environmental voters could still make the difference if they came out to vote, said Nathanial Stinnett, founder and executive director of the nonpartisan Environmental Voter Project, which works to identify and mobilize environmentally minded voters.

The Boston-based nonprofit has identified 260,167 voters in the state who have stayed away from recent elections but who would be considered “environment-first” voters, Stinnett said. That represents about 7 percent of the number of all voters in the last midterm elections in North Carolina, in 2018, he said.  

“In a close race they could absolutely be the difference-makers,” Stinnett said. 

North Carolina, he added, offers “a perfect opportunity for the environmental movement in 2022 because the Senate race is excruciatingly close and there are over 150,000 super-environmentalists who typically vote in Presidential elections, but skip midterms, so these environmentalists are prime turnout targets.”

Even if just half of these show up in November, that would exceed the 74,481 vote margin that Trump beat Biden by in 2020 in North Carolina, “which means it could easily end up determining the 2022 Senate race.”

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