RALEIGH, N.C. (WNCN) – Early voting for the primary election began in North Carolina Thursday with many critical races on the ballot, including the contest for the state’s open U.S. Senate seat.

Presumptive Democratic nominee Cheri Beasley, a former chief justice of the state Supreme Court, cast her ballot Thursday morning at Chavis Park in Raleigh.

Speaking with reporters afterward, she said the key issue she’s hearing about from voters is rising prices, as the country’s inflation rate is at a level not seen since the early 1980s.

“I know that Washington has failed the people of North Carolina, and I know it’s time for that to change,” she said.

With her party in control of Congress and the White House, we asked her what still needs to be done to address that issue.

“We have been in a pandemic, knowing that has impacted our supply chain issues. Knowing also that we have corporations who are flagrantly price gouging at a time when people in this state are struggling,” she said. “We need to make sure we’re holding corporations accountable, making sure that they are not flagrantly price gouging and raising costs at a time when people are struggling. I would certainly impose a price-gouging penalty because we need to hold them accountable.”

A poll CBS17 released earlier this month in partnership with Emerson College and The Hill found 37 percent of voters identified the economy as the most important issue facing the state, with healthcare coming in second at 21 percent.

A plurality of voters (45 percent) blamed the Biden administration most for high gas prices, and 18 percent blamed gas and oil companies most. Five percent blamed Vladimir Putin most.

The issue is likely to remain at the forefront of voters’ minds heading into the fall general election.

While Beasley’s top challengers on the Democratic side all have dropped out and endorsed her, Republicans are still locked in an intense battle for their party’s nomination.

U.S. Rep. Ted Budd, former Gov. Pat McCrory and former U.S. Rep. Mark Walker are the leading GOP contenders.

Former President Donald Trump has endorsed Budd.

The airwaves have been saturated for months with attack ads, with the biggest spending coming from the conservative organization Club for Growth as they’ve worked to promote Budd and have gone after McCrory especially.

“Republicans will turn out for Republicans. We will all coalesce behind our Senate nominee this November, and Cheri Beasley is a weak candidate,” said Savannah Viar, a spokesperson for the Republican National Committee. “We’re going to see a very big groundswell of Republican support which will parlay itself into 2024 with whomever our presidential nominee is.”

When we asked voters in our poll who they would choose between Beasley and the various Republican candidates, Budd and Walker came out ahead of her while McCrory was the only one who trailed her slightly.

“We are taking what the Biden administration is doing to this country and showcasing that to voters,” said Viar. “The Biden administration’s record-high 40-year inflation, record-high gas prices that North Carolina recently hit (a statewide historic record last month), those kinds of things are things that are important to voters.”

The early voting period will continue through May 14. Primary day is May 17.