Politics & Policy

North Carolina: Battle for the White House and the Senate

Senator Richard Burr (Photo: BurrForSenate.com)
Richard Burr is in a tough fight.

Morganton, N.C. — Five days before Election Day, Senator Richard Burr (R., N.C.), locked in a tight reelection battle that could well determine which party controls the Senate, is speaking to a crowd of two dozen people at the Burke County GOP headquarters here in Morganton, population 17,000. Slouched in a leather swivel chair, coffee cup in hand, legs crossed to reveal several inches of bare ankle (the senator is notorious for his aversion to socks), Burr explains that this is more or less how he has spent the past couple of weeks.

“Brooke [Burr’s wife] and I are just now getting off two and a half weeks on the road, the two of us — and as my staff would attest I haven’t shared with them very fully where we’ve been,” Burr says, an amused twinkle in his blue eyes.

Indeed, when the senator pulled up to this event Thursday morning, it was just he and Brooke. (A staffer met him there.) He was driving; his wife was in the passenger seat. Jackets and shirts hung from a hook in the backseat, where, he says later, there is also a cooler, packed with iced tea, water, and the “ham, roast beef, and salami sandwiches” that he made Sunday night before they left home. (“It’s better than McDonald’s,” his wife says, somewhat skeptically.) The car, a white Hyundai Sonata hybrid, has just two bumper stickers: one for Trump-Pence, and one for Bitty & Beau’s Coffee shop.

This, North Carolina Republicans say, is a classic Burr campaign. The senator, who chairs the Senate Intelligence Committee, had thought he would retire after this term, he says, but if he’s running, he’s going to do it his way — after all, he hasn’t lost an election since 1992.  

It drives D.C. Republicans crazy.

Burr faces perhaps his toughest race yet in a year he describes as “the most unique election I have ever seen.” He is locked in a tight battle with Democrat Deborah Ross, a former state assemblywoman. It is a marquee race, in a major battleground state, where the results Tuesday evening could determine not only which party controls the Senate, but who wins the presidency. With stakes so high, some Republicans wonder whether his unique style of campaigning will be sufficient. “When you’re running in a really great year, aimlessly riding around North Carolina and showing up in places, that can work. When you’re facing one of the most well-organized Democratic mechanisms I’ve seen in my lifetime, you might want to do a little more,” says one North Carolina Republican operative.

But Burr has little patience for such criticism.

“There are a lot of people in Washington who would like me to change my style. They would like me to have staff with me — for what reason, I don’t know; they would like me to quit driving myself; they’d like me to wear socks. I mean, there are a lot of things they would like me to do that normal candidates running for the United States Senate do. Well, you know, I’ve been doing this for 24 years. I’m not gonna change.”

Indeed, Doug Heye, a veteran GOP operative, says Burr’s 2004 Senate race against Erskine Bowles looked quite similar, in the final days, to this one. Heye recalls “either the Friday or the Monday” before the election, Burr and his wife were in Elizabeth City, a city with a population just under 18,000 people in the eastern part of the state. “They were going just business to business and talking to folks,” Heye says, “and he’s remarkably effective at that.”

Burr is adamant that everything is going according to plan. Having press and staff around just slows him and Brooke down, he says. As for the criticism that he started to spend money too late — he first went on air in late August — Burr says that may have actually been too early. It’s apples and oranges to compare his campaign spending to say, Rob Portman’s (as National Review did in an August article), Burr says, because Portman had people tuning in early as a result of the Republican National Convention taking place in his state. Not so, Burr says, in North Carolina.

“Engaging in the political process really didn’t happen until Labor Day, and I could question whether it really happened then, ’cause we ran a month, a month of ads that nobody saw. The last week of August and then all of September, all of the positive ads, nobody really saw those. So I think the electorate engaged much later this year and I would tell you that our campaign’s gone about like we had it designed on paper to go. And any campaign that tells you that they don’t want the momentum the last two weeks, it’s crazy,” Burr says.

The second-term senator’s insistence on running his campaign his way and ignoring the conventional wisdom of campaigning is a quirk well known in North Carolina Republican circles. They react to questions about it with knowing laughter and sometimes an eye roll, but it is accepted as the way Burr does things with an affection not unlike what one might have for an eccentric uncle.

But for all the handwringing they provoke, Burr’s individual actions seem likely to fade into the background in the last days. “That’s basically just in-speak,” says North Carolina GOP consultant Carter Wrenn of any talk of specific campaigning tactics. “Every day there’s 4 or 5 million people seeing ads about Richard Burr and Deborah Ross.” Indeed, turning on the television or the radio in North Carolina means facing a barrage of political ads. And it’s not just on television: In the past five days, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Mike Pence, Tim Kaine, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders have all made appearances and held rallies across the state.

Republicans are feeling markedly better in recent weeks.

Ross, has taken full advantage of the big names. This week, she appeared at rallies with Biden, Obama, Clinton and Sanders. “I think it’s gotten the voters’ attention and it’s gotten them excited,” Ross says of the effect of all that star power, noting the sheer size of the crowds someone like Obama can draw. “I think we have what the pundits call the enthusiasm factor,” she adds.

Republicans and Democrats alike acknowledge that the presidential race will have a major influence on the Senate race, but for the past few months, that’s been a mixed bag for Burr, who, like every Republican on the ballot this year, has had to contend with the ups and downs of public sentiment surrounding Trump. But Republicans are feeling markedly better in recent weeks, as news of Obamacare premium hikes and renewed FBI interest in Clinton’s State Department e-mails have erased Trump’s foibles from the front page. That’s particularly good news for Burr, who has consistently run ahead of Trump in polls. If Trump keeps it to a close race – win or lose – Burr could have the edge.

One North Carolina Republican operative who in September predicted results for Republicans that were as bad as 2008, “if not worse,” says he now feels somewhat optimistic. If early vote continues the way it was going, with lower African-American turnout, he predicts, Burr would win, and Trump and embattled Republican governor Pat McCrory might too.

“I think right now, it’s looking, trending well for Republicans. I’m anticipating that Mr. Trump could potentially win, maybe three to five points,” says Representative Mark Walker, in an interview in a Greensboro coffee shop. Would he have said the same thing a couple of weeks ago? Then, he says, he would have predicted “maybe one to two points. Maybe even 5050, a toss-up.”

Obamacare and Clinton’s e-mails, North Carolina Republicans say, have stabilized Republican campaigns in the state. More important, says one North Carolina Republican, in a year when many Republicans are less than enthused about their presidential nominee, and in a state with a fairly low-key senator and a struggling governor, those things help provide a needed boost of enthusiasm to get Republicans to the polls.

In the homestretch, Republicans and Democrats alike profess uncertainty over what is likely to happen. Several people caveated conversations at the start with the fact that this election has been unlike anything they have seen before, and they’re genuinely unsure. “Who knows where this election ends up – it’s been sort of bizarre,” says Wrenn.

Polling has provided little clarity. In both the Senate and the presidential race, the RealClearPolitics Average puts the Republican ahead by a fraction of a percentage point. Burr, for his part, says things are exactly where he expected them to be. He has only one gripe about the election.

“I think the only thing that has troubled me through this process is whoever the Washington Republican strategist is that always seems to know more about what I do in my campaign than I do, I’d like to find him,” Burr says. “Because they clearly either don’t know what they’re talking about or clearly they’re a Democrat disguised as a Republican strategist.”

— Alexis Levinson is National Review’s senior political reporter.

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