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Politics
The 2022 midterm elections will be the first of the Biden era. They will also be the first since the 2020 census, which means likely changes to congressional districts. There will be at least two open U.S. Senate races in the Carolinas as well, with the seats held by Richard Burr in North Carolina and Tim Scott in South Carolina up for grabs. Both Burr and Scott are Republicans. Burr is not seeking reelection, and jockeying for his seat began as early as January 2021.

Jeff Jackson Is Bringing Energy And Big Crowds To NC's Senate Race. Is It Enough?

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Steve Harrison
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WFAE
Mecklenburg County state Sen. Jeff Jackson spoke to about 75 people in Shelby last month. He's on a 100-county tour of the state.

In the last four U.S. Senate races, North Carolina Democrats have sent four white, moderate candidates to the general election. They’ve lost all four times. Cal Cunningham in 2020. Deborah Ross in 2016. Kay Hagan in 2014, and Elaine Marshall in 2010.

Jackson thinks it’s his turn in 2022 — but also thinks that he’s different.

As part of a 100-county tour since he declared his candidacy in January, he’s been meeting voters, alternating between being passionate and funny. Last month, he met with voters under a pavilion at the City Park in Shelby. A voter asked him about Republicans taking ownership of religious issues.

“How do you encourage and point out that there is not just one party that is a party of faith?” the man asked.

Jackson was ready.

“Well, Randy I’ll come to your church, I think you just invited me! I accept!” he said.

The crowd laughed. Jackson kept going.

“See you on Sunday! We’ll split the sermon 50-50,” he joked.

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Steve Harrison/WFAE
Jeff Jackson spoke to Cleveland County voters at City Park in Shelby.

Jackson, an attorney and member of the National Guard, has been in the state Senate since 2014. He was appointed to the position after Dan Clodfelter stepped down to become Charlotte's mayor. Jackson, who is 38, has become a Democratic star — in part through his shrewd use of his social media.

For instance, when he announced his candidacy in a video, his family played a prominent role.

“And that means we’re going to be on the road – a lot!” he said.

One of his children then shouted, “Yay!”

And he’ll detail on social media mundane parts of his life, too.

“My last car was a Ford Fusion that I bought used. Great car,” he said in a video he recorded with a cellphone. “The one I bought before that was a Ford Fusion that I bought used. So I have had two used Ford Fusions. But you gotta try something different. You can’t always be trying the same thing. So here we go, I want to introduce you my third used Ford Fusion.”

On his 100-county tour, Jackson has been drawing sizeable, mostly white crowds. He’s raised $2 million since January, primarily from small donors.

[Related: Here Are The Candidates Running For U.S. Senate In North Carolina]

But the party may need something different in 2022, said Mecklenburg County state representative Kelly Alexander.

“I’ve worked with Jeff, I like Jeff. I think that he brings a lot to the table,” Alexander said. “But in this particular race and in this particular year that’s coming up, what we need is a candidate who can really motivate the grassroots, can generate some turnout.

Alexander is one of four Mecklenburg legislators who has endorsed former state Supreme Court Chief Justice Cheri Beasley in the Democratic primary. Joyce Waddell, Carla Cunningham, Nasif Majeed are the others who have endorsed her.

Alexander hopes Beasley can recreate what African American U.S. Sen. Raphael Warnock did in Georgia last year, mobilizing a coalition of Black and white voters. Beasley raised nearly $1.3 million in the second quarter of this year, and she didn't officially enter the field until April. Former state Sen. Erica Smith, Beaufort Mayor Rett Newton and Durham virologist Richard Watkins are also running.

Jackson doesn’t have any endorsements from his Mecklenburg colleagues in the legislature. And that’s been noticed by political insiders in Raleigh. Some say Jackson is great at self-promotion, but not an effective lawmaker.

Republican state Sen. Danny Britt of Robeson County said legislators — including Democrats — have given Jackson a nickname: Baby Jesus.

“And they’ve given him that nickname because when he was baby he laid there are cried and made a lot of noise,” Britt said. “But that’s all he did. He didn’t do his real work until he grew up.”

Jackson was a lead sponsor on a bill to repeal a state law that didn’t allow a woman to revoke consent during sex.

The issue was important for Jackson, but he couldn’t get it passed. The General Assembly unanimously approved it in 2019 – but only after Jackson was excluded from the final negotiations between the House and Senate, according to a Carolina Public Press story.

Britt said the consent bill moved forward once other Democrats took the lead. In his view, Jackson was using it to bash Republicans and wasn’t working across the aisle.

“There are several Democrats in the Senate who do work well with the Republican members,” Britt said. “Jeff Jackson just isn’t one of those.”

Jackson is running as something of a centrist. He is embracing core Democratic goals like fighting climate change, while not endorsing or coming out against the more progressive Green New Deal.

On his tour of all 100 North Carolina counties, Jackson gives a stump speech and his answers questions in front of the group. He also meets with voters one on one afterwards.

Jackson’s stump speech focuses heavily on voting rights, especially ending gerrymandering. He’s told followers on Twitter that “we have to end gerrymandering and we are running out of time.” He’s highlighted the state’s fights over new state and congressional maps.

Although protecting the vote is one of his key issues, he won’t answer questions on how to do that.

Last month, U.S. Sen. Joe Manchin, D.-W.Va., released his proposal on how to secure voting rights, which included requiring voter ID. A number of Democrats like Georgia's Stacey Abrams — and Beasley — said they would be OK with voter ID and not photo ID.

Jackson and his campaign didn’t respond to multiple requests to say whether he would support that.

But that’s not on the mind of Sally Royster of Cleveland County, who came to Jackson’s town hall in Shelby.

She said Jackson has differentiated himself from Cunningham, who narrowly lost to Thom Tillis last November.

“I think Jeff is super dynamic,” she said. “He is well-versed on all the issues from family issues to criminal issues to budget issues. I’ve heard more from him on specific issues than I ever did from Cal. I just think he’s top drawer.”

Jackson’s 100-county tour is sending him west this week to Henderson, Madison and Buncombe counties.

Do you want to stay up to date on politics? Our weekly Inside Politics newsletter takes you on a deep dive of North Carolina politics with reporter Steve Harrison. Sign up here to have politics news delivered straight to your inbox.