One of the oddities of this big election year in North Carolina is the relative quiet around the race for U.S. Senate. The contest between a two-term incumbent senator and a former state lawmaker was not expected to be close. And yet it is, but the drama around the presidential race, the governor’s race and House Bill 2 is keeping this big news from getting wider attention.
Democrat Deborah Ross, who became the nominee after more prominent Democrats passed on the race, is giving Republican Sen. Richard Burr a serious challenge. The consensus of polls on the website Real Clear Politics shows Ross within 3.3 points of Burr. A CBS poll earlier this month had her 1 point ahead. (Libertarian Sean Haugh is drawing 5 percent support.)
Yet even as this race unfolds in the context of a Democratic push to take back the Senate, it’s not attracting strong notice among voters. In contrast, the state’s last U.S. Senate race, between Democrat Sen. Kay Hagan and former Republican state House Speaker Thom Tillis in 2014, brought several months of heavy TV ads in one of most expensive races in Senate history.
Ross, who was head of the state chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union before winning a seat in the General Assembly, would seem too urban and too liberal to compete with Burr, the head of the Senate Intelligence Committee, a member of the Senate for 12 years and, prior to that, a U.S. representative from North Carolina’s 5th District.
Burr’s campaign apparently shared the common assessment that Ross would not be a serious threat. It has dubbed the Democratic challenger “Radical Ross” and seemed confident that her record alone would defeat her. But Ross has proven to be an opponent who can’t be dismissed. With less than three months until Election Day, she’s one TV surge or one Trump-related Republican setback away from overtaking Burr.
That Ross is proving a competitive candidate is not a surprise to state Rep. Pricey Harrison, a liberal Greensboro Democrat who served with Ross in the state legislature for 10 years. She calls Ross a “pragmatic progressive” who is “very likable and very smart” and “a heck of a fundraiser and a fighter.” But despite Ross’ qualities, Harrison conceded, “I don’t think anybody expected it to be this close.”
Why it is starts with Ross. She’s a strong campaigner who has criss-crossed the state for months, often going into smaller towns where she says “Burr hasn’t been seen for years.” It also has to do with the rising frustration of North Carolina voters. Ross says “the state is on fire” with anger at the do-nothing Congress and the hard-right agenda of the state legislature. People are eager to be heard, she says, “and I’m a good listener.”
But a third factor has to do with Burr. He has a surprisingly low profile despite his long tenure in Congress. A poll by Raleigh-based Public Policy Polling found that 33 percent of voters are have no opinion on Burr’s job performance.
Tom Jensen, director of Public Policy Polling, said Burr’s lack of visibility leaves him “more susceptible to what kind of year it is.” Burr’s previous runs came in good years for Republicans: 2004 with President George W. Bush seeking a second term, and 2010 with North Carolina voters blaming President Obama for the state’s high unemployment rate and with most opposing his Affordable Care Act.
This is not a good year for Republicans with Trump’s erratic and divisive campaign and with Republican Gov. Pat McCrory up for re-election amid an uproar over his dogged support for House Bill 2.
Despite her work on the hustings, Ross will ultimately need to raise her profile through advertising. “The majority of the voters in the state don’t know anything about her,” Jensen said.
The example of Hagan, who lost narrowly to Tillis, is relevant to both campaigns, Jensen said. Hagan, a former state senator, defeated the nationally prominent incumbent Elizabeth Dole in 2008 by tapping a flood of national contributions to define Dole in a negative light. Ross is attracting the same flow of national money.
Meanwhile, Burr is similar to Hagan in 2014, a lackluster incumbent about whom a high percentage of voters have no opinion. The Ross campaign will aim to paint a negative image where the slate is blank.
Low-profile senators prone to being upset at the polls have become a pattern in North Carolina, Jensen said. “We haven’t had a senator who voters have strong opinions about since Jesse Helms,” he said. “And that has left our senators vulnerable to whatever way the wind is blowing when they are up for re-election.”
The winds are wild this year, and that turbulence has been increased by Burr’s slowness to recognize his vulnerability. He doesn’t plan to campaign in earnest until Congress recesses in October. As Burr has been passive, Ross has been content to work quietly county by county.
The result, Jensen said, is that this Senate race will be more typical of those of 50 years ago that didn’t really get rolling until after Labor Day. Normally, a quiet race would favor the incumbent, but in this case the quiet may be deceiving. The very aspects that made Burr take Ross lightly – her urban base and progressive record – may have grown into surprisingly strong attributes in a state that is demographically shifting and where voters are frustrated by conservative-led gridlock in Washington and overreach in Raleigh.
Barnett: 919-829-4512, firstname.lastname@example.org