Exclusive: The last days of Jeff Jackson’s campaign for Senate

Exclusive: The last days of Jeff Jackson’s campaign for Senate

Jeff Jackson in Alamance County in August. Photo by Jerry Wolford/Perfecta Visuals, courtesy of Jeff Jackson for North Carolina campaign

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Maybe it was Cherokee, or Chatham. Hard to tell. But at some point during his whirlwind driving tour of all 100 North Carolina counties this summer, Jeff Jackson started a file in his notes app called “The Marisa List.”

He filled it with quaint towns and scenic overlooks and food he’d eaten from the mountains to the sea, all experiences he wanted to return to with his wife, Marisa, whenever his campaign for U.S. Senate was finished.

That time’s here, sooner than either had hoped.

Driving the news: Jackson ended his bid for Senate this morning and endorsed his primary opponent, former N.C. Supreme Court chief justice Cheri Beasley, for the Democratic nomination in a key race to replace the retiring Richard Burr.

In conversations with me this past week, Jackson said that after recent polls showed him behind Beasley in a two-person race, political advisers told him the only way to come back was to run a negative campaign.

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  • “We decided not to do that,” Jackson, a state senator, said. “Not because I have a particular problem being critical when I think it’s fair, but just in her case, it would not have been honest.
  • “She has over a decade of exemplary public service to her name. And the prospect of suggesting otherwise on television ads, was just a non-starter with me.”

Why it matters: Beasley now becomes the presumptive Democratic nominee in a purple-state race that could determine the balance of power in the Senate, which is currently split 50-50.

  • If elected, she would be the first Black senator from North Carolina.
  • “She would be an historic nominee, and U.S. senator, for all the right reasons,” Jackson said.
  • Said Beasley in a statement: “Senator Jackson brought attention to the issues important to so many North Carolinians, and I know he will continue to do meaningful work in the state Senate. I’m grateful to have his support in this race.”

The intrigue: North Carolina’s primary elections were pushed back until May 2022 while the courts sort out gerrymandering lawsuits, so Beasley will have five months to fundraise and campaign without much distraction.

Meanwhile, her Republican counterparts are engaged in a brutal primary.

  • Former President Trump flew to North Carolina in June and endorsed Rep. Ted Budd over former Gov. Pat McCrory and former Rep Mark Walker. McCrory, though, withstood the initial bump and outraised Budd in the third quarter.
  • Enter: The Club for Growth PAC, a conservative group that supports Budd and most other Trump picks. WRAL recently reported that Club For Growth has spent $4.3 million on the race and will approach $10 million.
  • The group sent a 12-page mailer to voters calling McCrory “fatally flawed.” And Budd ads have called the ex-governor a “Trump-hater, liberal faker.”
  • McCrory in recent days countered by challenging Budd to a debate, and saying his opponent is “too afraid” to do so.

The Democratic primary had little such contentiousness, and now it will have even less.

Cheri Beasley at Marshall Park Dec 1, 2021

Cheri Beasley. Michael Graff/Axios

Behind the scenes, Jackson made the decision about a week and a half after Thanksgiving, and he’s been delivering the news to his family, his staff and his top supporters one-by-one.

Each time, he heard a similar response: “Why?”

He’d raised more than $3 million, conducted 140-plus town halls, built a team of a couple dozen staffers and interns, driven the mileage equivalent of a trip to Australia, and taken nearly 5,000 questions, by his staff’s best estimate.

The reality is, soon after Beasley entered the race in April, she started outpacing him in fundraising and endorsements. By the end of the third quarter, Beasley had all but closed the fundraising gap.

Big endorsements rolled her way, including one from Harvey Gantt, who in 1990 nearly became North Carolina’s first Black Senator in a race that will forever be remembered for Jesse Helms’ notorious “Hands” ad.

An October Politico story from Michael Kruse dove deep into the race, and the tension between voters who liked both Beasley and Jackson.

Prominent Charlotte pastor Ray McKinnon, who considers Jackson a friend, said he supported Beasley for many reasons. But one: “There are no Black women in the Senate, and when we’re talking about the Democratic Party, we cannot win elections without them and their voice.”

  • I asked Jackson about those observations this past week, and he said, “Those comments were fair. They were fair. We’ve had two Black women ever, as U.S. senators. That is wrong. It is.”

“This election is bigger than any one person,” Beasley said in her statement this morning. “It is about the people of our state, and having a Senator who will fight to lower health care costs, create good-paying jobs, take action on climate change, and work hard for every person in our state — no matter what your zip code is or how much money you make.”

I asked Jackson if he thought his inability to go negative against an opponent made him someone who was cut out for 21st century politics.

“Maybe not,” he said, shrugging and looking down at a Coke can. “And that’s OK.”

Immediately his campaign manager, Max Glass, jumped in: “I would say ‘the inability to go negative in a Democratic primary.’ We’re always going to have to hold Republicans accountable.”

Glass and others hope Jackson, who’s presumably built some goodwill within his party by making this easy, will run for something again soon. But Jackson says he’ll wait.

He won’t rush to try to enter the N.C. senate race to keep his seat. He said he supports Rachel Hunt, who’s announced her intentions to run there.

Jeff Jackson campaign video clip

Source: Jeff Jackson for Senate

“I’m going to spend next year running for Dad of the Year,” Jackson says. “Because I’ve been gone for the last year, and I’ve been watching our kids grow up in time lapse.”

At 39, he’s still one of Charlotte’s most well-known and liked politicians, especially among his generation. He’s a millennial father of three with more than 200,000 social media followers who tune in as much to see pictures of his kids and family as they do his policy stances.

Marisa — of “The Marisa List” — met Jeff when he was an assistant district attorney in Gaston County. He was a National Guardsman who’d served in Afghanistan, enlisting shortly after 9/11, and had a law degree from UNC. She had a two-year-old son then, Haden. After one of his National Guard deployments, Jeff came home and gave Haden a kid-sized Army uniform so that they could match.

They got married in 2012, and by 2014 their first child together, Owen, was on the way.

Marisa’s developed a following of her own. In 2020, she finished his campaign for state senate while he was away at National Guard training.

For anyone who wants to know what running a campaign and having a family with multiple children truly looks like, Marisa’s probably the best person to ask.

“I knew that this was something important and special,” she tells me.

But? I said.

“Easy days and harder days,” she said. “There were days when you get a call from school and there’s a COVID case and schools shut down and, well, whatever I was planning to do was over.”

Haden, now 13, regularly asked to visit friends and stay late into the evening. But she had bathtime with the two younger children, 6-year-old Owen and 3-year-old Avery, so he had to stay home.

“We all had to make sacrifices,” Marisa said.

Does she hope he’ll run for office again? Certainly, she says.

“I think Jeff’s has such a special gift to make affective change for millions of people and I just hope one day an opportunity presents itself.”

Jeff Jackson Durham campaign stop

Jackson encountered a lot of rain on his 100-county tour, including at the stop in Durham. Photo by Madison Hoffmann, courtesy of Jeff Jackson for North Carolina campaign.

Back when the campaign started in January, their youngest, 2-year-old Avery, had just finished potty training.

Back then, his kids had an old trampoline in the backyard that he and Marisa had just purchased off of Facebook marketplace. Back then, Beasley wasn’t even running for Senate.

He calls the campaign the “most meaningful professional experience” of his life, answering questions in the rain in Durham, shouting to a crowd of 300 in Winston-Salem because his press secretary had gone out of town and accidentally left the microphone in his trunk, answering questions from the crowd of 500 or so college students who showed up in Chapel Hill.

In Cherokee County, Jackson gave his standard speech, then answered questions and shook hands. One man in his 60s hovered in the background, waiting to be the last person to talk to him. Then the man started quietly:

“He was like, ‘Look, there are going to be moments where you, in this campaign, where you are in a hotel in some county, you’ve never been all by yourself, and you’re gonna wonder what the heck am I even doing? And in that moment, I need you to know that there are just a ton of people with you, and supporting you. And you’re doing it for them.”

Stuff like that helped Jackson through, but still. There were days when he’d open his phone and see videos from home, of Avery talking in full paragraphs, and wonder what he was missing.

Now there’s a new trampoline in the backyard. Marisa purchased it almost a year after he hauled the used one home draped over the hood of a flatbed, and she had this one installed by a professional.

Jeff Jackson speaks with UNC Charlotte senior Jeremy Goldsby following his town hall. Photo: Ashley Mahoney/Axios

When I met Jackson at his NoDa campaign offices last week, the vibe felt more like the end of a sports season, or move-out day on a college campus.

Jackson’s been trying to find jobs for his staff; they’ve helped him draft thank you letters. There were lots of congratulations, lots of stories from the road. I half-expected Jackson, who’s never afraid to embarrass himself, to belt out That One Green Day Song.

Toward the end of our conversation, the room got quiet and I asked how he was feeling about calling it quits. “Honestly,” I said, “as somebody … who hasn’t been told no, I’m guessing, a ton?”

There’s a 20-second pause on my tape before he starts talking.

“It feels like…” and then 20 more silent seconds.

“I was trying to pick one emotion, but it really is a mixture,” he said. “There’s a sense of pride in that I don’t think we made any major mistakes in running what I feel is one of the most transparent campaigns in the history of the state.

  • “And a sense of relief in that, although we fell short, I truly don’t think that we could have done anything differently to change that. I think we threw this ball as hard as we possibly could. And I’m relieved that I’m not going to have any regrets about that.”

He’s been saying that, or some version of it, over and over since he made the decision. Most times it follows the same script: Deliver the news, see their surprise, explain the reasons.

Marisa was the first to know, of course. “It didn’t go great,” Jeff says. “It took me a couple of minutes of talking to her and sort of explaining the reason I thought we didn’t have any real choice. And since then she’s, I mean, within five minutes it was OK.”

Over the next couple of days, he called her family and his.

“He was genuinely surprised about their sadness,” Marisa told me. “And I guess because he’d already been thinking about it, he’d come to terms with it already, and when he’s telling people, he’s gotta deal with it all over again.”

They waited until the last moments to tell their kids, partly because they needed to figure out how to say it, partly because they worried they’d spill the news at school.

Over the weekend, Jeff took Haden to a car show in south Charlotte and told him on the walk in. A short back and forth followed, but Haden was mostly interested in the RollsRoyces and the Lamborghinis.

By Wednesday night, when WRAL broke the story of Jackson’s exit, citing anonymous sources, the Jacksons still hadn’t told their youngest children, Owen and Avery.

Jeff figures he’ll take Avery to Target and tell her when she has a toy in hand.

Owen, now 6, was a bit of a wild card. Last year, Jeff explained the concept of campaigning for Senate to Owen by pulling out a map of North Carolina and waving his hand across it: “People from all over get to vote for some people in this race.”

Owen fixed on that last word, race: “So can you drive a car, or do you need to run?”

Late Wednesday evening, while political twitter buzzed with news of Jackson’s exit, the candidate sat down with Owen before bedtime and explained the new situation. Then he asked if his son, now a year older and wiser, had any questions.

Owen did: He asked if they could watch a tsunami video, because that’s what they’d been learning about in school this week. And that’s how Jeff Jackson spent some of the last night of the campaign, talking with his son about big waves.

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