Rob Christensen

Who will challenge Burr?

Staff WriterMarch 29, 2009 

U.S. Sen. Kay Hagan could be called the $47 million woman -- the amount spent by both sides in the Senate race in North Carolina last year.

As stunning as that figure may seem, some insiders expect the Senate race next year to be more expensive.

And that is why state Attorney General Roy Cooper is the subject of a high-intensity recruitment campaign by the national Democratic Party.

With President Barack Obama and Democrats one member short of the 60 votes needed to make legislation in the U.S. Senate veto-proof, North Carolina is likely to be the focus of an intense and expensive contest for the seat held by Republican Sen. Richard Burr.

Senate races used to be parochial affairs. But starting with the rise of Sen. Jesse Helms in the 1970s Tar Heel Senate races have been nationalized.

Karl Rove, the chief White House adviser under President Bush, recruited Burr and former Sen. Elizabeth Dole to run. Dole ran to replace Helms, and Burr ran for the seat then held by Democrat John Edwards.

Hagan was recruited by Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who ran a campaign committee that funneled nearly $12 million into North Carolina to help elect Hagan.

Although Burr has not formally announced his re-election bid, he is quietly beginning to lay the groundwork for a campaign. The Democrats have yet to settle on a candidate.

The most sought-after is Cooper, the three-term attorney general, whom people have been touting as a future governor since he arrived in the legislature in the mid-1980s. Schumer and company unsuccessfully lobbied Cooper to run for the Senate last year -- and are now at it again.

Cooper is avoiding public comment as he decides whether to seek a Senate seat. He is expected to make up his mind this spring.

A Burr-Cooper race would present two smart, hardworking guys in their early 50s with telegenic good looks.

On the plus side for Cooper are his law-and-order credentials -- he was the one who dismissed the rape charges in the Duke lacrosse case.

But still hanging over his head is a 9-year-old defamation suit regarding an ad from his 2000 attorney general's race.

If Cooper decides not to run, it is not clear who will. Democratic U.S. Rep. Heath Shuler toyed with the idea before dropping it.

Other possibilities could include former state Treasurer Richard Moore, U.S. Reps. Brad Miller and Bob Etheridge, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall or an up-and-coming state legislator.

Two recent statewide polls have found Cooper slightly ahead of Burr in a hypothetical match-up -- not a strong position for an incumbent.

But polls are pretty meaningless 20 months before an election.

The condition of the economy -- and the national political climate -- are likely to shape the next Senate race.

rob.christensen@newsobserver.com or919-829-4532

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