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5 takeaways from the North Carolina Senate debate

North Carolina’s Senate race has emerged as perhaps the year’s most quiet toss-up contest.

But both parties are taking the race — one of a handful that could decide control of the upper chamber — seriously. Democrat Cheri Beasley and Republican Ted Budd met for the first time on Friday night to debate a laundry list of issues that are playing out in key races across the country.

Here are five takeaways from their debate:

Budd and Beasley dodge their parties’ leaders

Neither Beasley nor Budd appeared eager to be tied to their respective parties’ leaders.

Asked whether President Biden should run for a second term in 2024, Beasley brushed off the question, saying simply that it wasn’t her decision to make. She also dodged repeated questions about whether she would want Biden to campaign with her before the midterms.

Likewise, Budd declined to say whether former President Trump should make another run for the White House in two years.

Their answers – or lack thereof – illustrate how both candidates are approaching their parties’ most divisive figures at a critical time in the Senate race. While both Biden and Trump have a loyal following, operatives on both sides are aware that there’s a risk in being tied too closely to either figure.

Still, that didn’t stop Beasley from going after Budd for his ties to Trump. And Budd repeatedly attacked Beasley as a mouthpiece for the Biden administration. 

Abortion plays a starring role

Beasley repeatedly riffed off of what Democrats believe may be their strongest talking point of the year: abortion rights.

While Budd argued time and again that the issue of reproductive rights belongs to the states, Beasley insisted that Republicans were intent on curbing abortion rights, saying the GOP was wading into an issue that should be private.

“There is no place in the exam room for Congressman Budd,” she said.

The debate illustrated just how difficult of a time Republicans have had responding to Democrats’ attacks in the wake of the Supreme Court’s ruling overturning Roe v. Wade, the landmark 1973 abortion rights decision.

The question, however, is whether it’ll be enough to sway enough voters come November.

Biden’s marijuana decision looms over the debate

One of the clearest divides on Friday night was on Biden’s recent decision to pardon people convicted of possession of marijuana at the federal level. 

Beasley was clear in her stance that cannabis should be legalized at the federal level, echoing an opinion that has become increasingly popular, not just in North Carolina, but nationally. 

Budd, meanwhile said Biden’s decision “sends a bad message to children.”

He said that he was willing to have a conversation about whether certain people had a genuine medical need for marijuana. But he slammed the idea of legalizing the drug and then immediately turned the conversation to the issue of illegal immigration and crime.

Budd zeroes in on Biden

If there’s one thing that national Republicans are banking on next month, it’s that Bidens’ unpopularity will propel them back into the majority, not just in the House, but in the Senate.

Budd’s strategy made that clear.

Throughout the debate, Budd sought to tie Beasley to her party’s leader, seeking to cast her as an easy vote in favor of Biden’s agenda in an evenly divided Senate.

And Beasley appeared to recognize the dangers Biden poses to her prospects in November. Asked whether she would join the president if he were to make a campaign stop in North Carolina, Beasley demurred.

“President Biden is certainly welcome to be here,” she said.

The quietest battleground stays quiet

North Carolina has repeatedly hosted some of the closest statewide races in the country. 

But in a year where control of both the House and the Senate are on the line, the state is playing a supportive role for more closely-watched races, like the ones in Arizona, Georgia and Nevada. 

Strategists and political observers say that it’s simply because Budd and Beasley have kept things relatively civil. Both have held elected office before and have been vetted by voters in the past.

Friday’s debate didn’t do much to change that. The messaging was clear: Beasley attacked Budd as a mouthpiece for Trump and a right-wing extremist, while Budd accused Beasley of toeing her party line amid mounting national crises. 

While many political observers have looked past the North Carolina Senate race, strategists have watched it closely, believing that control of the upper chamber could very well come down to who wins retiring Sen. Richard Burr’s (R-N.C.) seat.

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