The candidates are different, but in many ways the U.S. Senate race between Deborah Ross and Richard Burr will look like the 2014 clash between Kay Hagan and Thom Tillis that set a record for campaign spending.
The candidates already are racing ahead of strong primary victories Tuesday, when both drew support from more than 60 percent of their party’s voters.
Burr, a two-term Republican senator from Winston-Salem, has major clout in Washington as chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. Ross, a former state House member from Raleigh, hopes to unseat him in November and put a Democrat back in North Carolina’s Senate delegation.
The race will draw millions in spending – much of it by groups acting independently from the campaigns – and a deluge of TV ads.
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Many of those ads will be negative, so expect to hear a lot about Burr’s Washington record and Ross’ actions in the state House and as state director of the American Civil Liberties Union.
And don’t forget the third-party candidate: The Senate race is among several statewide contests this year that will feature a Libertarian.
Here are five key questions as the general election campaign begins:
Will campaign spending set a record? Burr’s 21-year tenure in Congress gives him an early funding advantage. He had $5.31 million in his campaign account at the end of February, while Ross had $292,000.
Much as in the close 2014 Senate race between Republican Tillis and the incumbent Democrat Hagan, outside political groups are expected to spend millions on this year’s race. More than $111 million was spent in that 2014 contest, making it the most expensive Senate race in American history.
But unlike Tillis and Hagan, Burr and Ross will have to compete for attention and money with presidential and gubernatorial campaigns.
Holding a Senate leadership position does give Burr an advantage in drawing campaign money from outside groups.
Richard Burr had $5.31 million in his campaign account at the end of February, while Deborah Ross had $292,000.
So far, Federal Election Commission records don’t list any independent expenditures made on Ross’ behalf by PACs or others; all advertising in her favor has been funded directly by her campaign.
But Burr has benefited from $83,000 in spending by the National Rifle Association on Internet ads, postcards and phone banks supporting the senator. And a Super PAC initially formed to help Tillis’ Senate run spent $60,000 on radio ads for Burr.
Nationally, the GOP’s Senate fundraising arm – the National Republican Senatorial Committee, or NRSC – is more concerned about helping vulnerable members of the party in other states, said Jennifer Duffy, senior editor at the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication.
The NRSC hasn’t contributed to Burr’s campaign, and if it does jump in, Duffy said, it probably would be paying for digital or TV ads. Generally, she said, the NRSC doesn’t give direct cash to incumbents.
And, Duffy said, Burr “doesn’t need it” yet.
“Right now, (Burr) doesn’t have a competitive race,” she said, adding that with months to go before the general election, his advantage could change.
A High Point University poll conducted this month found that in a general election, 48 percent of likely voters would support Burr, while 41 percent would back Ross. About 11 percent said they were undecided.
Ross’ campaign sees those polling numbers as positive because she started the race further behind Burr.
“We’ve built one of the strongest grassroots teams in the nation, cut Sen. Burr’s lead down to single digits, and spread our message across the farthest stretches of the state,” the campaign said in a recent fundraising email.
The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee is supporting Ross, but she has not been high on their list of cash recipients, Duffy said.
Instead, Democratic Party leaders seem to have their attention focused on Senate races outside North Carolina where GOP incumbents are more in peril. Those states include Illinois, where Sen. Mark Kirk faces his first re-election bid, and Wisconsin, where Sen. Ron Johnson faces former Democratic U.S. Sen. Russ Feingold.
I’d hesitate to predict anything in such an unpredictable year. If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, all bets are off.
Gary Pearce, Democratic political consultant
Would a Donald Trump candidacy cost Burr the election? It’s unclear how down-ballot races will be affected if the controversial billionaire gets the Republican nomination. If Trump as the nominee prompted some GOP voters to stay home, Republicans in tight races, including Burr and Gov. Pat McCrory, could suffer.
“I’d hesitate to predict anything in such an unpredictable year,” said Gary Pearce, a longtime Democratic political consultant. “If Donald Trump is the Republican nominee, all bets are off.”
But Alfredo Rodriguez, a Republican political consultant, said he thinks the idea that Trump would drag down other GOP candidates is “a fairytale wish by Democrats.”
“Donald Trump is more than simply a candidate; he is a movement,” Rodriguez said. “Should Donald Trump be our nominee …he’s going to say ‘re-elect Pat McCrory, re-elect Sen. Burr.’ ”
Even if turnout among both parties proves to be typical for a presidential election year, Pearce said this year’s rhetoric could mean Burr’s experience in Congress could be a liability. He said the incumbent will face an “anti-Washington, anti-establishment, anti-Congress year.”
More Republican donors and groups might get involved in competitive congressional races, especially if Trump is the presidential nominee, Duffy said. That would prompt the party to sharply turn its focus to saving its Senate majority if Democrats are likely to win the White House.
That scenario could be a concern for the GOP in North Carolina, because voters here historically have chosen a U.S. senator from the same party that carried the state in the presidential race.
A survey by the nonpartisan blog Smart Politics found that since 1916, North Carolina voters have only once elected a senator and a presidential candidate from different parties in the same election.
Pearce said he sees parallels between this year’s Senate matchup and the 2008 campaign between Hagan – then a state senator – and the incumbent, Republican Sen. Elizabeth Dole.
Donald Trump is more than simply a candidate; he is a movement. Should Donald Trump be our nominee ... he’s going to say ‘re-elect Pat McCrory, re-elect Sen. Burr.’
Alfredo Rodriguez, Republican political consultant
“That year, Kay Hagan was helped enormously by the national ticket” of Barack Obama, Pearce said.
Will Ross be a strong enough candidate for Democrats? While Democrats hoped last year to recruit a familiar face – Hagan or U.S. Secretary of Transportation and former Charlotte mayor Anthony Foxx, for example – to take on Burr, Ross exceeded expectations in the primary.
They noted that she finished with roughly the same percentage of primary votes that Burr received in the GOP primary – not bad considering Burr has far more name recognition, and polls just months ago showed the majority of Democratic primary voters had no opinion of Ross.
To get her message out, Ross spent heavily on TV ads, buying nearly $200,000 of air time on Triangle broadcast stations alone.
“This has to send a few shock waves through the Burr camp and clearly bolsters Ross’ appeal to national Democrats,” Rob Schofield of the liberal N.C. Policy Watch wrote on his blog.
But Rodriguez said Republicans aren’t worried about Burr. “Richard Burr has proven to be an adept campaigner in all his previous elections, both for the U.S. House and the U.S. Senate, and he’s proven to be a prodigious fundraiser,” he said.
When Burr was re-elected in 2010, he got 55 percent of the vote, while his opponent, Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, got 43 percent.
Burr and Ross both fared better in their primaries this year than Tillis did in the GOP primary two years ago. Tillis got 46 percent of the vote against seven opponents, while Ross had 63 percent and Burr had 62 percent this year against three opponents each.
What issues will we hear about in attack ads? While the presidential primary season remains unsettled, the negative campaigning already has begun in North Carolina’s Senate race.
Ross took aim at Burr in her victory speech Tuesday night at state Democratic Party headquarters in Raleigh.
“What North Carolina can’t afford is six more years of Richard Burr,” she told supporters. “Right now, folks aren’t getting that fair shot because politicians like Richard Burr keep stacking the deck against them.”
Ross’ criticism is in keeping with the “economic security” theme of her campaign, which includes proposals for higher wages and increased access to healthcare and higher education.
And before the primary results were complete, the National Republican Senatorial Committee issued a news release criticizing her work for the American Civil Liberties Union: “As a former ACLU lobbyist, Deborah Ross fought for some of the organization’s most extreme policies,” NRSC spokeswoman Alleigh Marré said in the news release. “Ross even sided with sex offenders as she argued that an online registry wouldn’t protect children. In the coming months her radical record will be exposed for the danger it is to North Carolina families.”
In 1997, Ross lobbied against legislation that launched the state’s sex offender registry. She argued that many sex crimes involve a family relationship, and that family members might not want neighbors to know about the incidents.
During the primary, Kevin Griffin, one of Ross’ Democratic opponents, brought up the registry bill as he argued that Ross would be vulnerable to Republican attacks.
Burr and Ross already are sparring over the fate of President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee, U.S. Court of Appeals Chief Judge Merrick Garland.
Ross said Burr is “shirking his constitutional responsibilities by refusing to consider nominees for the Supreme Court.”
Burr has argued that the next president should make the nomination because “this appointment could easily tip the balance of the court in a direction not supported by the American people as evidenced by 2014’s election results giving Republicans both the Senate and House.”
Will the Libertarian pizza guy deliver a spoiler? Burr and Ross will be joined on November’s ballot by a familiar face from the 2014 Senate race: Libertarian Sean Haugh, a pizza delivery driver from Durham who attracted national attention two years ago for his unusual candidacy.
Haugh said he’ll run a similar campaign this time: focusing on such Libertarian principles as ending wars and cutting spending, while getting the message out with low-cost tools like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube videos. Previous Haugh campaign videos featured him sipping craft beer while discussing issues at length.
“I can’t imagine anybody who is more different from me politically than Richard Burr,” Haugh said Thursday. “He’s going to make my job really easy.”
Libertarians nationally already are courting what they term “political refugees” who aren’t thrilled about a potential choice between Trump and Hillary Clinton. Haugh said his party could get a closer look up and down the ballot this year, and his name recognition from the 2014 race could help.
“This is a fantastic year to be a Libertarian on the ballot,” he said. “Libertarian ideas have moved from being considered on the fringe to the mainstream.”
If the race between Ross and Burr is close, Haugh could play a spoiler role, particularly if he can poll higher than the 4 percent of the vote he received two years ago. He said he plans to improve his campaign organization and recruit more volunteers to help get out the vote.
It’s unclear whether outside political groups again will run ads promoting Haugh. A conservative group called American Future Fund spent $420,000 on 2014 ads encouraging Hagan supporters to instead vote for Haugh because he supports legalizing marijuana. The videos featured young actors chanting “get Haugh, get high” and “more weed, less war.”
“I don’t know if I’m going to be used as a prop for these dark money campaigns again,” Haugh said. “It just tells you how much is at stake here.”
Anna Douglas of the McClatchy Washington Bureau contributed to this report