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GREENSBORO, N.C. (WGHP) – Democrat Cheri Beasley has gained more ground in her bid to overtake Republican Ted Budd in their race to be the next senator from North Carolina, even though many voters say they expect her ultimately to lose.

Budd in May led Beasley by 6.8 percentage points in a projected head-to-head battle to replace retiring Sen. Richard Burr, but the latest WGHP/Emerson College/The Hill Poll released today shows that lead inside the 3-point margin of error, 45.6%-43.2%.

About 48.2% of voters in early May had supported Budd, and 41.4% were backing Beasley, which means there has been about a 2-point swing for each candidate. A poll in April by Emerson showed Budd to have a 50-43 edge head-to-head.

“So, what we see is Ted Budd has actually lost a little bit of support in this race,” said Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College Polling. “His lead has shrunk from seven points down to [about] three.”

Budd, a gun-shop owner from Advance who has represented the 13th Congressional District since 2016, and Beasley, an attorney from Cumberland County and former chief justice of the North Carolina Supreme Court, have been considered neck-and-neck in their race to take join Republican Sen. Thom Tillis in representing North Carolina.

Libertarian Shannon Bray generated 1.6% support in the poll, and Green Party candidate Matthew Hoh, a newcomer based on a recent court decision, is at .6 of a point. About 8.5% of voters remain undecided.

Budd and Beasley both easily won crowded primaries, and Beasley has raised more in donations. Both have strong support from political action committees and super PACs. They are scheduled to debate on cable television on Oct. 7.

Budd continues to have a better favorability rating and a strong advantage among men and among less-educated voters. But Beasley has gained from the focus on abortion as a motivating factor for voters, which Kimball described as a “gender divide.”

“Budd leads among men by 16 points while Beasley leads among women by nine points,” he said. “Notably, 81% of the undecided voters are women whose most important voting issue is abortion access (28%).

“What we’re seeing is the abortion issue is motivating new voters into the arena essentially.”

Kimball also said those persons without a college degree “are breaking for Budd, 52%-37%. Those with a high school degree or more are breaking for Beasley, 52%-37%. So we have really opposite ends of the educational spectrum.”

Emerson Polling’s survey included 1,000 likely voters, contacted by telephone and internet on Sept. 15-16. Data were weighted for various demographic information, and the poll’s “credibility interval,” which is like a margin of error, is plus or minus three percentage points.

Budd’s edge in the poll nearly mirrors the 48% who said they had a favorable view of him, compared to a 38% unfavorable view. Beasley’s favorability was also similar (46%), but her unfavorable number was at 40%.

What they said

"Cheri is well-positioned to win this election and continues to gain momentum as she meets voters where they are and shares her commitment to protecting our rights and lowering costs," Kelci Hobson, spokesperson for Beasley's campaign, said in response to the poll. "Meanwhile, Congressman Ted Budd continues to demonstrate that he is out of touch with North Carolinians, whether it’s his record as an election denier, sponsoring a nationwide abortion ban or voting against lowering costs for hardworking North Carolina families."

Budd, during an appearance in Durham on Tuesday morning, reiterated the issues he sees as important in the race.

"We're talking about inflation, we're talking about crime, we're talking about moms and dads who want a say in their kid's education again, so we just want to get our message out there," Budd said. "Work hard, stay humble, stay focused all the way through the end of the campaign in the next 49 days and that's our message.

"We're going to continue to ask for their support whether we're ahead or not we're going to continue to work hard, we look forward to winning, but of course, this is the NASCAR state. You don't lift and win. So we're going to run hard for the end."

Elections overall

But nearly 6 in 10 voters (56%) say that, despite their preferences, they think Budd will win on Nov. 8. About 44% say they expect Beasley to win.

This is one of a handful of tight races that could affect the balance of control in the Senate, where each party has 50 senators, but Democrats have control based on Vice President Kamala Harris’s tiebreaking vote.

Georgia, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Colorado, Florida, Nevada, Wisconsin and Ohio all have races that pretty much could go either way. In the House, the Democrats’ 9-seat edge (221-212) could be precarious.

“Republicans are in a particularly strong position to take back the House,” Kimball said. “The question is going to be the Senate.

“That’s what I’m looking at here in 2022, the Republicans probably picking up the House but the Democrats being able to hold on to a couple of these Senate seats and one of them could be here in North Carolina.”

He said the key for Beasley would be her ability to get voters to the polls.

“In midterm elections, we get generally a lower turnout than presidential [elections],” he said. “So it’s really about getting that base excited.

“And that’s what we’re seeing, particularly from the Beasley camp. They seem a little bit more excited as we took a look at this race than they were maybe two or three months ago.”

The Biden factor

Joe Biden
President Joe Biden speaks in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)

Voters surveyed by Emerson College found that the economy is the most important issue, the determining factor in 41% of their decisions, followed by threats to democracy (14%), abortion (12%) and health care (11%).

And Budd aggressively has addressed economic issues during campaign appearances and in television ads and has sought to link Beasley to President Joe Biden in economic policies that he says have led to rising inflation.

Emerson’s poll found that a majority of voters (52%) disapprove of the job Biden is doing as president, and 42% approve. But those numbers are better than they had been.

“I think that’s exactly what we see here in North Carolina, is basically a bounce-back for President Biden as far as his approvals go,” Kimball said. “He’s still at -10 here in the Tar Heel State, but that’s a better place to be than the -15 he was at going into the summer.

“Nationally, he’s around a -6 or -7, and so he polls a little bit lower in North Carolina than he does in his national numbers. But that’s to be expected because he performed slightly lower here in North Carolina than he did in his national numbers in the election.”

The Trump factor

Former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., Saturday, Sept. 3, 2022. (AP Photo/Mary Altaffer)

Then there is the impact of former President Donald Trump, whose endorsement propelled Budd to his primary victory over former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep. Mark Walker, among others. Trump is appearing at an event with Budd on Friday.

But Trump continues to be mired in controversy. His activities in trying to overturn his loss to Biden, which led to his supporters’ deadly insurrection at the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, and his unfounded claims of a stolen election continue to be investigated for potential crimes.

And in early August the FBI searched his residence at the Mar-a-Lago club in Palm Beach, Florida, to see if Trump had returned all classified documents that he was not supposed to have in his possession and had been ordered to return.

They found a wide variety of documents that included sensitive issues involving undercover assets, nuclear information and reports about national defense. The Department of Justice and Trump’s attorneys continue to litigate the investigation.

But many voters surveyed by Emerson (43%) said that the search would make them more likely to support Trump, who won in North Carolina in 2020. Fewer than 3 in 10 (29%) say the findings at Mar-a-Lago make them less likely to support Trump. About that same number (28%) said it made no difference.

In a hypothetical matchup between Biden and Trump, Trump again would have the edge, 47% -42%.

“A majority of North Carolina’s white (54%), rural (56%) and senior (51%) populations say that the FBI’s recent search of Mar-a-Lago makes them more likely to support Donald Trump,” Kimball said.

He said this issue has different impacts nationally. “What we see in, let’s say, New Hampshire is total opposite numbers, where now we see more voters are less likely to vote for Trump,” Kimball said.

“It’s more important to look at these state numbers because it’s really going to tell you what’s motivating these voters to come out to vote. For the Democrats, they have abortion access. But, for a lot of the Republicans, they are supporting former President Trump and are going to come out because of the Mar-a-Lago search.

“What’s interesting is within the Democratic Party, Joe Biden is a Democrat, but he isn’t the Democratic Party. They still see a difference between Biden and the Democratic Party. For the Republicans, they don’t really see a difference between Trump and the Republican Party. Trump is the Republican Party.”

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The methodology

Emerson College Polling’s North Carolina poll was conducted Sept. 15-16. The sample consisted of somewhat and very likely voters, with a credibility interval (similar to a poll’s margin of error) of plus or minus three percentage points. The data sets were weighted by gender, age, education, region, party registration and race/ethnicity based on 2022 turnout modeling. It is important to remember that subsets based on gender, age, education and race/ethnicity could have higher margins of error because the sample size is reduced. Data were collected using a cellphone sample using SMS-to-web, an Interactive Voice Response system of landlines and an online panel.

What is Emerson Polling?

The Polling Center at Emerson College, which is in Boston, is a non-partisan organization dedicated to “accurately reflect populations through public opinion research.” Established 25 years ago in a classroom, Emerson College Polling in 2012 was moved into a polling center. Emerson College Polling conducts and publishes research related to voting trends, polling methodology and public policy.

Michael Hyland and Russ Bowen of WNCN contributed to this report.