“One of These People Is the Future of the Democratic South”

This is the opening of a Politico deep dive into the riveting Democratic Party primary for a Senate seat in NC:

By the time Jeff Jackson got here, he already had been to 95 of the 100 counties in the state, drawing crowds in not only Democratic strongholds but reliably Republican outposts as well. Now on a steamy Saturday morning an hour northwest of Charlotte, pressing into the more rural reaches of Lincoln County where last year more than 7 in 10 voters voted for Donald Trump, this Democrat running for the United States Senate bounded across a park toward a pavilion that was packed with 130 whooping, clapping supporters. “Y’all — I can’t tell you how surprised I am by how many people are here!”

Dressed in his uniform — brown shoes, khaki pants, soft blue Oxford shirt — Jackson launched into his characteristically spirited, borderline iconoclastic spiel. He told the throng what hordes of consultants had told him about how to win — polls, focus groups, “five key phrases in five key counties!” “I said, ‘Bullshit!’” he said, leaning forward to land the punchline. “That’s how you lose!”

In almost any Democratic primary in North Carolina in almost any cycle in the past, somebody like Jackson would have been all but a lock to win. A white father to three young children, an Army veteran who spent a year in Afghanistan and a former prosecutor in a conservative county who’s now a state senator from Charlotte, he is, even his critics grant, a gifted communicator — good on the stump, good on the internet, and good face-to-face, fist-bumping his way through rope lines and meet-and-greets, making apparent inroads in places where progressive Democrats usually are persona non grata.

But this cycle is not like all those other cycles — and maybe nowhere is that more clear than in this ultra-important state in this ultra-important race. Because the candidate who’s emerging as the frontrunner is not the 39-year-old Jackson. For now, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is not taking sides, but by any of the most traditional metrics — polling, fundraising, endorsements — the pacesetter seems to be Cheri Beasley, who is looking more and more like a part of a wave of Black candidates who are rapidly altering the dynamics of Senate campaigns across the country, especially in the South, challenging long-held maxims about what kinds of candidates are best positioned to appeal to the mixture of voters in a region with electoral demographics that are changing just as fast and where Black candidates have historically had to run as outsiders or long shots….

This real-time scrambling of notions and norms is riveting even to politicos on the other side of the aisle. “Is it possible we have an establishment African-American Democrat and a non-establishment white male?” Charlotte-based attorney and Republican consultant Larry Shaheen said when we talked this month. “Jeff Jackson is the anti-establishment Democrat in the race for North Carolina Senate, and Cheri Beasley has positioned herself as the establishment candidate — whether she wants to be called that or not.”…

“It is about as fascinating a question as we’ve had in North Carolina primary politics as I can recall because of the contrast,” said one. “It’s kind of like Beasley and Jeff are the polar opposites. It’s like he’s a great communicator with no gravitas, and she has all the gravitas and is doing an atrocious job of communicating,” said another. “Cheri Beasley is almost the opposite of him in that the political world wanted her to run,” said a third. “But she’s not working like he’s working.”

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