Republicans are increasingly nervous about the Senate race in North Carolina, where Senator Richard Burr finds himself at sea in a year when some party insiders say a perfect storm may be gathering for Tar Heel State Democrats.
Burr faces Deborah Ross, a former member of the North Carolina General Assembly, in a race that few Republicans even considered competitive several months ago. Ross was not a top recruit, entering the race only after other Democratic hopefuls passed, and Burr — the well-liked chairman of the powerful Senate Intelligence Committee — seemed to have little to worry about. But with less than three months to go until election day, Burr has barely begun campaigning, and it’s increasingly clear that his reelection is threatened by two forces beyond his control: Donald Trump and Pat McCrory, the unpopular Republican Governor who’s also up for reelection this year.
“If it was a normal year, and it was just Richard and Deborah, you’d have to say Richard had a solid advantage,” says North Carolina GOP consultant Carter Wrenn. But 2016, of course, is not a normal year.
A Wall Street Journal/Marist poll released earlier this month found Ross leading Burr 46 percent to 44 percent among registered voters, raising eyebrows among some politicos who until then hadn’t registered the race as competitive. “It’s certainly not where we wanted to be three months away from the election: neck-and-neck in the polls,” says one North Carolina Republican.
Elsewhere in the poll was worse news for the North Carolina GOP: Hillary Clinton leads Trump 45 percent to 36 percent in the state, and maintains a nine-point edge among independent voters, who make up a growing and increasingly crucial voting bloc statewide. The lead reflects a brutal truth for state Republicans: Trump, many of them say, has virtually no organization in North Carolina. The Clinton campaign has made clear it is planning to invest serious resources. Clinton made her first joint campaign appearance with President Barack Obama in Charlotte last month; she and running mate Tim Kaine have both visited the state since.
“I think this is a Trump problem, not a Burr problem,” the North Carolina Republican says bluntly. “I think that this is a fixable problem for Richard — but it’s a problem nonetheless.”
Burr’s troubles may begin with Trump, but they don’t end there. North Carolina also happens to be host to perhaps the most hotly contested gubernatorial race in the country, pitting McCrory, the enormously unpopular incumbent Republican, against Democrat Roy Cooper, the state’s attorney general. McCrory has been badly damaged by a year spent defending HB-2, the controversial “bathroom bill,” which sparked an exodus of major corporations from the state after critics complained that it discriminated against transgender citizens. He trails Cooper by seven points in the WSJ/Marist poll. “The Republican brand is not popular in North Carolina,” a second North Carolina Republican acknowledges.
The state has not been easy terrain for either party in recent years, producing a series of neck-and-neck elections, and some Republicans scoff at the idea that anyone ever claimed Burr’s reelection would be a cakewalk. But many are surprised to find his campaign in such a tough spot.
Burr has never had to run for Senate in a year like this — both of his previous races came in good years for Republicans, one of them against a mediocre opponent — and some GOP observers are frustrated that he is approaching the race as if nothing were different. For instance, he is not yet running ads, which, while unsurprising to Republicans who have followed his past campaigns and know he dislikes to spend money much before Labor Day, is still causing some consternation.
“It makes me nervous,” says Wrenn. Burr’s campaign spent only $2.1 million dollars total between January 2015 and the end of June 2016, according to FEC reports. By contrast, Ohio Senator Rob Portman spent $7.6 million in that same period in a state with similarly expensive media markets.
Ross is not yet on the air either. But she is also at a large financial disadvantage: she ended June with just $1.9 million in the bank compared to Burr’s $6.9 million. Some Republicans are perplexed that Burr hasn’t dipped into his comparatively sizable coffers to exploit his edge.
“I kind of am baffled by it,” says a third North Carolina Republican strategist, saying Burr “should have done the work to define her while there was a vacuum in the race.”
It’s increasingly clear that his reelection is threatened by two forces beyond his control: Donald Trump and Pat McCrory.
What’s more, Burr’s obligations as Chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee keep him out of the state more than some campaign-minded Republicans would like. Few Republicans fault him for that, of course. In fact, most see his position on a committee intimately involved in national security as something that will be a major boon to his campaign, once it gets moving. But in the meantime, his absence isn’t soothing their nerves.
Burr’s campaign pushes back on the idea that the late start is anything to be concerned about.
“Senator Burr is in a strong position to capitalize on the increased interest in the race as the campaign moves into the fall months and many voters begin to tune in for the first time,” says communications director Jesse Hunt. “Senator Burr’s record of delivering real results for North Carolina is unmatched in the field. . . . This race will come down to who North Carolinians trust most to represent their views in the Senate despite Ross’ desperate attempts to make it about anything else.”
Republicans are not yet writing Burr off. North Carolina is home to six military bases and a large number of veterans and military families, and Burr’s position on the Intelligence Committee gives him an important say in many of the national-security issues that matter to those populations. Such issues helped boost now-Senator Thom Tillis at the tail end of his 2014 Senate bid against Kay Hagan, and Republicans say Burr’s low-key style fits the ethos of the state well, giving him a good chance to reap the same benefits.
Ross was not a top recruit. Democrats tried unsuccessfully to convince several politicians with higher profiles — Hagan, Cooper, Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx — to run first. And if she’s not particularly well-known now, there’s no shortage of attacks with which Republicans will try to define her: As a former director of the ACLU, she has a record of lobbying for positions that Republicans argue puts her very far to the left of the average North Carolina voter.
The ease of writing negative ads with which to attack Ross is one argument a number of Republicans have made in dismissing concerns about the race over the past few months. But the fact that there are things to attack Ross on doesn’t matter unless someone actually launches the attack. Democrats acknowledge that she has vulnerabilities, but, they note, Republicans haven’t done anything to exploit them. In fact, Ross is emerging from the summer almost entirely unscathed. Burr has not gone on the air yet, and only one Republican outside group — One Nation — is currently advertising in the state, with a generic spot rather than one tailored specifically to Ross.
“I think everybody’s expected that to happen, for [Republicans] to really go after Deborah and paint her in a certain box. And the fact that we’re in mid-August and that has not happened has strengthened her position greatly,” says North Carolina Democratic strategist Morgan Jackson. With state Republicans largely absent from the airwaves — and the contentious presidential and gubernatorial races ensuring minimal media coverage of the Senate campaign — Ross has had the leeway to “set her own tone” and “introduce herself to voters, all on her own terms,” Jackson says.
Since late 2014 when Senate recruitment started in earnest, Democrats have made clear their strategy was to play to win even in the races that seemed patently unwinnable, so that they would be in position to take advantage of extraordinary circumstances should they arrive. And that is exactly what appears to be happening in North Carolina.
“The national environment has really put her in the position to win this race,” Jackson says. And just as important, Ross has put on a show of force that gives Democrats hope she can seize her chance, out-raising Burr in the first two fundraising quarters of 2016. “I think that has certainly upped her profile,” says Hagan, the former Democratic senator.
Ross’s unexpected fundraising strength aside, though, the biggest issue for both sides is still likely to be the sheer size of the Senate map and the demands it places on the resources of outside groups and party committees.
“I think Richard’s going to be ok if he gets the kind of resources into this state [from outside groups] that it’s going to take,” says the first North Carolina Republican. Burr’s Intelligence Committee chairmanship could help in that regard, bringing national-security-focused groups off the sideline. But it remains an open question whether Republican groups will choose to allocate resources to a race that they hadn’t originally anticipated would require outside help. Republicans are defending incumbents in competitive races in nine states, and fighting to hold an open seat in Indiana and gain an open seat in Nevada. With so many places to spend, North Carolina may not be that high on the list.
Some state GOP operatives have concluded that it may not even matter: the national environment being what it is, the race could already be out of their hands.
“I’m thinking it certainly looks like a [Democratic] wave,” Wrenn says. “Maybe that wave just sort of passes and washes away. But on the other hand, maybe it comes ashore stronger than it is now.”
— Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.
Editor’s Note: This article has been updated since its original posting.