By many standards, Senator Richard Burr of North Carolina is one of the most vulnerable Republicans of the 2016 Senate election cycle. His approval ratings are at a low 26% while his disapproval ratings exceed 40%, he’s running in a swing state, and he will be running in a presidential election year, which usually favor Democrats.
Just looking at these facts, North Carolina seems to represent one of the Democrats’ best chances at picking up a Senate seat. However, despite the Democrats’ success at recruiting a slate of strong candidates across the country, they have been unable to find a strong contender to run against Burr.
As of right now, no major Democratic candidate is running for the Senate. Initially, Democrats tried to persuade former Senator Kay Hagan to run, but she has declined. Secretary of Transportation and former mayor of Charlotte Anthony Foxx has also declined a run for the Senate. This has left a gaping hole in the race for incumbent Burr’s seat.
In the wake of Hagan and Foxx’s decisions not to run, three candidates have jumped into the race: former state representative Deborah Ross, mayor of Spring Lake Chris Rey, and businessman Kevin Griffin. Out of these three, Deborah Ross appears to be the strongest candidate, polling within five points of Burr in some polls, even with her limited statewide recognition.
Ross served for ten years in the state assembly as the representative of the 34th district, even rising to the position of being one of the party’s whips before resigning. Before her time in the statehouse, Ross worked as an attorney for the ACLU, which she used as an example of her record of fighting for civil and constitutional rights in her campaign announcement. Her record is bolstered by her recognized efforts to improve healthcare rights as a legislator during a time when the governor sought to limit women’s healthcare options and when he rejected the Medicaid expansion offered by the Affordable Care Act.
Ross is by no means a bad candidate. In fact, she may be the best that the Democrats will be able to produce in North Carolina this cycle. The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee (DSCC) certainly thinks so, as demonstrated by their January endorsement of her. But she faces many large obstacles in the election ahead.
The first issue that she faces is that, as a former state assemblywoman, she lacks statewide recognition. As unpopular as Richard Burr is, he is still a two-term incumbent which gives him more voter recognition than Ross. In addition, his incumbency has given him significant fundraising advantages. As of last month, Burr had over $5.3 million on hand and had already spent over $1.9 million. In a large state like North Carolina, with a population 9.944 million, money matters.
In contrast, Hagan’s indecision over whether she was going to run kept other Democrats from declaring their candidacy and setting up critical campaign infrastructure until only a month or two ago. Despite Burr’s initial struggle to raise money and Ross’ strong fundraising numbers, the latter’s financial resources still pale in comparison to Burr’s war chest.
The Democrats received a boost from North Carolina’s decision to move up their primary election from May to March, and now the eventual nominee will have to spend less money fighting his/her fellow Democrats and will have more time to garner support against Burr. The problem of the primary still exists though, especially since the vast majority of Democratic primary voters are undecided, due to all of the candidates limited name recognition. Whichever candidate wins the primary and moves on to the general election will have fewer resources to campaign with than a powerful frontrunner like Hagan would.
Even a well-funded, strong candidate would still face a tough challenge against Burr. North Carolina is infamous for its strict voter ID laws. In fact, it’s been estimated that Kay Hagan lost her 2014 reelection campaign in part because of the amount of votes that the voter ID laws suppressed. To add, North Carolina is a state plagued by gerrymandering and low voter turnout that already leans Republican. Despite being a swing-state during a presidential year with an unpopular Republican incumbent running for reelection, North Carolina will still be the site of an uphill battle for the Democratic challenger.
The Democrats have plenty of opportunities to take other Republican’s Senate seats, so they do not need to unseat Burr if they want to retake the Senate. That does not make the prospect of Burr retaining his seat any less stinging. What is even more galling is that Senator Burr’s approval ratings mirror his 2010 approval ratings right before he won a second term, which could foreshadow a similar result this election cycle.
If Democrats want to send home a Republican who is widely known to not represent his state and whose accomplishments include defending interests of the tobacco lobby and trying to keep the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on torture under wraps, they need to coalesce around one candidate. Deborah Ross has done a good job creating basic campaign infrastructure quickly, but if she is to stand any chance against Burr, she needs media attention and fundraising that come along with being a party’s frontrunner. Otherwise, North Carolina voters may reelect the same undesirable politician they voted for six years ago.
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