The justice and the good ol’ boy are running very different campaigns. This observation may come across as being as fresh and newsworthy as a pit bull sampling the delectable flavors of a hapless mailman. But, along with candidate quality, the contrasting strategy Cheri Beasley has chosen to run relative to Republican Ted Budd explains why the Democratic jurist finds herself poised within sight of victory in a race few prognosticators believed she could win.

The darkness of Ted Budd’s campaign would have been startling had it not been for five decades of fearmongering Republicanism. In the banality of his demagogy we see how a Southernized GOP has brought Dixie hate into the national political mainstream. Still, Budd has run ads so despicable that I will not reiterate his smears in this column. They resemble the infamous “Willie Horton” ad that George H.W. Bush, supposedly an honorable statesman, fired at Michael Dukakis in the 1988 presidential campaign. Once an affable yahoo, Ted Budd has unleashed the ugly aggression of toxic masculinity.

Make no mistake: Sexism is critical to Ted Budd’s attack plan. Women to tend to be perceived as weak on public disorder, fit for the fainting couch, and Budd’s ads exploit that bias. History suggests that the ads will activate a deep reserve of gender bias in the North Carolina electorate. For historical perspective, this state failed to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment four times and did not elect a woman to Congress until the 1990s. Poll findings, however, have also picked up a backlash among women against Budd’s gendered invective. It is to this that we next turn.

My organization, Carolina Forward, recently published the results of its latest poll of North Carolina voters. Across the board, its findings illustrate a political landscape of narrow division, with Republicans and Democrats statistically tied for the major offices. Relevant to our discussion here is how men and women plan to vote, respectively. In the CF poll, North Carolina women expressed an intention to vote 11 points Democratic than their male counterparts.

This gender gap is enormous. It equals the female-male split seen in the 2000 president election, which at the time was the largest on record. Given the dynamics of North Carolina, Beasley’s feminist prowess is even more impressive than Al Gore’s Y2K achievement. North Carolina is a state addled with rigid racial polarization. Whites tend to vote the white vote, even women. So the fact that Cheri Beasley has opened up such a wide lead among women voters means that she has cracked the wall dividing the races in a former Jim Crow state.

Will she win the election? Polling does continue to show a slight Budd lead. Even if she falls short, however, Beasley’s strong progressive campaign has elucidated some new realities in North Carolina politics. There is a cohort of white women voters who no longer seem willing to tolerate the nastiness that has been a staple of NCGOP campaigns since the days of Jesse Helms. And Black candidates, demonstrably, can compete for white voters despite our tormented racial history. It is time for Democrats to abrogate their decades-old caution–and to elect this pathbreaking woman to the United States Senate.

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